Boston Superintendent Wins Urban Superintendent Award

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — October 22, 2012 7 min read
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Carol R. Johnson, the superintendent of Boston’s schools since 2009, was awarded the Richard R. Green award at the Council of the Great City Schools conference here last week. She will receive a $10,000 scholarship to award to a Boston student or a student from her alma mater.

The award alternates between a superintendent and a school board member each year. Last year’s winner was Candy Olson, a member of the board in Hillsborough County, Fla. The last superintendent to win was Arlene Ackerman, who was superintendent in Philadelphia.

At an awards banquet on Thursday, Johnson said the award came as a particular honor, as Richard R. Green was the superintendent in Minneapolis while Ms. Johnson was working in the district there.

District Dossier spoke with Johnson on Saturday about what she sees as the 57,000-student Boston school district’s achievements and accomplishments, and about the what lies ahead. Here’s some of the conversation:

What accomplishment in the past year are you most proud of?
I’m proud of a lot of things. We’ve increased the graduation rate for five years in a row, reduced by 40 percent the drop out rate, we’ve re-engaged almost 700 kids who’d dropped out. ...

I’m excited that despite the emphasis on testing, we’ve increased art and music opportunities for students. I’ve put an emphasis on that. We have students in several schools that had no arts and music who now do. The arts have a way of helping students be engaged and gain identity.

We’ve also increased the number of AP courses, increased academic experiences for kids [including a debate program]. The Urban Debate League has grown dramatically and involves a lot of young men of color... You can teach them about Afghanistan—maybe they’ll remember, maybe they won’t. Or you can get them to argue about whether Afghanistan or the Bay of Pigs could have happened differently...there’s a way in which they remember history & content that wouldn’t be possible without the Urban Debate League. It pushes students to be involved in rigorous study...

At this conference, there’s been some talk about how education needs to change, and on how we need to help more kids graduate but also prepare students for a workplace that expects more than “average.” Is that something you’re thinking about in Boston?
In the session the other day on engaging black and Latino males, we talked about how critical a high school diploma is, and how it’s something we’ve yet to achieve for so many of our students. But now we hear that that’s outdated. Before, if we graduated two-thirds of our students, we felt we were somewhat successful. That is no longer acceptable.

In Boston, our graduation rate has gone up every year for the past five years. But still. A third of our students aren’t graduating from high school. That’s not acceptable.

In his talk [at the conference on Friday], [author and columnist] Thomas Friedman suggested “thinking like an immigrant.” In Boston, over a third of our valedictorians last year were new immigrants. When he says think like an immigrant, he’s talking about first-generation immigrant populations—they’re so grateful for the free public education system that they maximize it. ...I think we need to be sure our other students also have that. And that they’re educated so that they’re not just graduating from high school, they’re ready for college, too. We’ve partnered with some of our institutes of higher education here in Boston to track whether our students are graduating college—not just going to college, but graduating...

We’re also talking about early childhood. For every dollar invested in pre-K, there’s a $7 return on that investment. Mayor Menino’s invested a lot in making sure that exists in Boston. Particularly for poor kids, we’re giving them an early start.

We also need to make sure the quality of teaching and the quality of our schools across every community gives every student equitable access. That’s part of why we negotiated a different teaching evaluation system. People are trying to get a handle on what matters most—and it seems that teaching matters most. It’s not just about that content, it’s about inspiring students to be engaged in the content.

We’ve also reconceptualized summer learning, so we expose our poorer students to things middle-class families expose their kids to. We take them to Thompson Island, give them exposure to those experiences. ...[T]hat’s a change from what we did before.

Boston’s in the process of developing a new student-assignment plan. Can you talk a bit about that?
Boston is an international city. I think that’s going to increasingly be true of urban cities if it’s not already. I think that in the past, most people thought of urban cities in terms of black and white. [That’s] Not the case anymore. Forty-two percent of students are Latino— and they come from many cultural backgrounds. We have 140 different countries speaking 70 languages.

The initial notions about integration—there were two purposes. One had to do with the importance of young people getting to learn with students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and across class lines, different incomes, to appreciate the diversity that’s in every community. But the other part of this is this: There was inequality in terms of opportunity. Both in terms of how much money was spent, and also what opportunities kids have. So if you look at all the court-ordered desegregation, what you’ll see is, it wasn’t just putting students on a bus. Huge amounts of resources were redistributed to create more equal resources for kids.

The common wisdom is that desegregation didn’t work. But there’s a research study out of Berkeley that talked about how the longitudinal evidence suggests that employment rates, incarceration rates suggest that it did work, because it created a different level of educational opportunity for thousands of kids in court-ordered districts.

The work we’re doing in Boston isn’t just about rethinking busing, though people might want to frame it like that. It’s about who has educational access, who has opportunity to learn, who has access to AP. Where we don’t see quality we make changes. ...It’s incumbent upon us to make changes where we don’t see quality occurring, and then to help teachers, who have to work to create inclusive environments for many students. Our parents care about test scores, but they also care about creativity, arts, music, and a sense of community.

What are your goals for working with the teachers’ union in Boston? (The district reached an agreement with its union in September, after more than two years of negotiation.)
The theme for all of us—and this includes those of us who work at district level and teachers unions—the theme is: Business as usual is no longer applicable. We’re being held to a higher standard of performance, due to the competition from charter and private schools, the mobility of families to pick up and move and make other choices to live in other neighborhoods. That no longer allows us to have a low graduation rate and a high dropout rate. We have to reduce number of kids dropping out, reduce the number of kids graduating, get close to 100 percent graduating. Teachers’ unions have to be part of the solution, and they have to understand that we’re in a different moment in history, where the competition isn’t between Boston, Cleveland, Detroit; it’s an international competition.

...I was a teacher when Al Shanker was president of the AFT. I think he clearly had a vision, a progressive vision for how teachers could be owners and keepers of the reform effort. There are elements of that that need to be continued.

How did your time as a teacher influence you as a superintendent?
You never move from being a teacher. No matter where you work in public education, whether you’re a district administrator, you’re always a teacher and always a learner. Always learning different ways to approach problems, to create personalized responses to the needs of individual students. I don’t know that you’re ever done being a teacher.

What are some of the topics that came up at the conference that caught your attention?
The council has a major initiative about what it means to rescue black and Latino boys, in particular African-American young men. We have to be more intentional about how to rescue and intentional about how to rescue them. Have to come up with new solutions. I’m intrigued by that conversation.

I’m also interested in conversations about the growth mindset. There’s research on not just educating teachers about a growth mindset—but on educating students about their own capacity to learn. Smart is not something you’re born with.

You’ve mentioned research a few times so far. How do you use research to inform your work?
In this work, it’s important not to depend on conventional wisdom, but to stay connected to the research community. There are a lot of lessons. The research community’s increasingly interested in answering questions about what works. I don’t think we should be afraid of experimenting to find out what works. But for our poorest kids, we can’t make a lot more mistakes. We have to make sure we’re examining research about our own practice—whether it’s on summer learning, teaching practices, research on turnaround schools. For instance, in Boston, there are eleven schools we’re trying to substantially turn around. Watching that work has been such a learning experience for all of us.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.