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As a federal official, Thomas W. Payzant helped reshape the Title I law. Now Boston's schools chief, he gets the chance to mold it to his district's needs.

Boston

Thomas W. Payzant, this city's hard-driving and plain-spoken schools superintendent, leans back on a plastic chair in a beige cinder-block office and throws out what he calls a "softball" question.

"How is Ohrenberger Elementary School implementing the new citywide learning standards and writing its comprehensive school plan?" he asks the school's leaders.

Ohrenberger will focus on improving the literacy of its 660 students, Elaine McAlear, the assistant principal, responds. To carry that out, teachers are investigating strategies for improving the way that they teach reading, she says. Whatever they do will include a mixture of whole-language and phonics techniques, she assures him.

Moving on to the second part of the question, McAlear notes that the school tries "to incorporate all members of our school community into our focus and mission statement," a reference to the comprehensive plan that Payzant is requiring of all city schools.

And all members means students. To that end, every teacher has assigned students to write or draw a vision of what they want from the school. "They want a school pool here, big time," McAlear jokes.

The superintendent makes no promises. Rather, he moves quickly to his next topic: Are the parent committee and site-based council of teachers involved in deciding how the school will meet the city's standards?

They are, McAlear declares. In fact, at this very moment, the chairwoman of the council is in the building, says Frank Galvin, the acting principal. Payzant indicates he wants to meet her, and Galvin is off to find her.

For these kinds of meetings in this drab environment, Payzant gave up comfortable high-backed leather chairs in ornate congressional hearing rooms where he answered the questions of U.S. senators and members of Congress.

Now, instead of walking the halls of Congress trying to persuade its members to overhaul federal programs, the U.S. Department of Education's former assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education visits Boston's 125 schools every year.

On this blustery morning, he's in the city's southern tip at Ohrenberger, where he reviews the major ingredients of his reform efforts--standards, comprehensive planning, school-based decisionmaking, parent involvement--ingredients that are likely to sound familiar to educators involved with Title I programs throughout the country. They are the same pieces now required from any school that receives money from the $7.2 billion federal program for disadvantaged students.

Payzant, though, knows them better than most. After all, he was instrumental in designing the new program that Congress reauthorized in 1994. He worked late into the evenings and many weekends throughout the summer of 1993 helping his colleagues at the Education Department write the proposal that became the working document for congressional discussion.

He sat through endless hours of conference meetings as senators and House members haggled over the final details of the bill more than a year later.

He made the rounds to secure votes from members on the fence about radically changing the remedial education program that had been in place for almost 30 years.

And, once the law passed, he negotiated the rules the department wrote to govern the program shortly before he left for Boston.

For the first time since its creation in 1965, Title I is to be an integral part of a school's mission, not a program that pulls students out for separate lessons.

The Boston post gave him the opportunity that few who operate inside the Washington Beltway get: To use the tools he helped design. As a result, he knows every detail of the law, where he can bend it to meet the needs of his 65,000-student district, and where he needs to demand results from the 125 principals who run the schools.

"Talk about an exaggerated sense of what you do," says Ellen Guiney, a former education aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

"The road from the Senate hearing room to the classroom is so long. It may as well be the moon," says Guiney, who is now the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence in the Public Schools and is operating a project in tandem with Payzant's reforms.

The law, Payzant says, is the natural outgrowth of what he learned in almost 20 years as a superintendent in Oklahoma City, Eugene, Ore., and San Diego before he moved to Washington to join the Clinton administration.

It "reflected a lot of my experience and thinking from San Diego," Payzant says from his office across the street from City Hall--an office filled with photos of him standing side by side with President Clinton and the first lady, as well as his own family.

Now that he is back in the superintendent's chair, he is tailoring what his schools do around his basic philosophy of improving schools by raising standards and stimulating a communitywide dialogue on how to ensure students meet them.

That is a contrast from the days when Chapter 1--Title I's predecessor--was treated as a program designed for a specific, isolated population and could be excluded from what the rest of the school system did.

"There's no conflict in having to do what you need for Title I and what we're doing for the whole system," Payzant says. "It's been a real advantage having had the privilege of working on the federal legislation."

For the first time since its creation in 1965, Title I is to be an integral part of a school's mission, not a program that pulls students out for separate lessons. It is to be built around the same curriculum offered all students, not remedial coursework designed for struggling children. And parents are to be actively involved, especially in urban areas, where schools must spend 1 percent of their money working with parents.

Most of the changes came from the plan that the Education Department proposed in 1993, and Congress--then run by Democrats--adjusted it to fit its own needs before readying it for the president's signature in October 1994.

The final version of the bill, which also reauthorized federal programs for professional development, technology, and impact aid, reflected the themes that the Education Department team had presented.

Under the reauthorization, school districts are expected to build their Title I programs around academic standards that their states set. The standards for low-achieving children who qualify for Title I must be every bit as challenging as the ones for the other students in the school.

Once Payzant arrived, he focused on writing standards for the city schools in line with the federal mandate.

While the department wanted standards to be drafted for every academic subject, Congress restricted the mandate to "at least" reading and mathematics to emphasize the program's traditional mandate and to ease criticisms that the federal government was meddling too much in the rest of the curriculum.

Districts also must employ a variety of assessments to prove that students are learning to the standards.

Moreover, the law offers flexibility. Any school with a poverty rate above 50 percent may choose to become a schoolwide program. That designation enables principals to merge federal money from most programs into a single pool so they can spend it on a comprehensive way to raise all students' achievement.

Payzant's 2 1/2-year stay inside the Beltway was a short one compared with many who write federal education policy.In early 1993, he accepted the invitation of U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to be the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

The former Eagle Scout, who has kept his boyish looks and energy into his 50s, would have no problems being confirmed by the Senate, officials in the new administration told him.

That was until conservatives discovered that Payzant had recommended that the San Diego school district bar Boy Scout troops from meeting in the city's schools. The recommendation, which the school board approved, was based on the national organization's rules prohibiting gay scoutmasters, in violation of the district's anti-discrimination policy.

The attempt to silence an All-American icon in the name of homosexual rights angered conservatives and made Payzant the perfect symbol for their attempts to label the new Democratic administration as out-of-the-mainstream liberals.

The controversy delayed his confirmation until July, six months after the administration took office. Unlike any other nominee for assistant secretary at the Education Department, his record was subjected to a Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearing.

During the squabbling, he called on several moderate Republican senators whose votes were needed to break any potential filibuster against his nomination. Later, those visits came in handy when it came time for him to round up votes for the new Title I and other changes in the Improving America's Schools Act, as the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was known.

A little more than two years after the Senate approved his nomination, the Boston school board hired him to be the city's superintendent. Boston is right next to his hometown of Quincy (or "Quin-zee," as he and other locals pronounce it). It was the only place that could have lured him away from Washington, he said at the time.

Once Payzant arrived here, he focused on writing standards for the city schools in line with the federal mandate: Standards for students in Title I had to be as tough as those their peers had to meet.

He and the standards-writing committees he formed published final versions of language arts and math standards in time for this school year and are rolling out standards for other subjects as they are completed.

The tumultuous history of desegregating Boston schools now actually makes it easier for the system to meet the schoolwide-program guidelines.

The final products build on the state's package of standards, adding specific goals where the state offers general ones and including benchmarks for children in every grade, not just the 5th, 8th, and 12th grades as the state does.

Now, in visits that are usually unannounced, Payzant is checking in on every school in the district this year, asking their leaders how they are using those standards and witnessing what is happening in classrooms.

"The concerns I'm hearing are: Will we be able to maintain the other academics?" Faye Webster, the head of the Ohrenberger Elementary School parent council, relays to Payzant when she arrives at the meeting. "How can you do it all without some kind of sacrifice?"

Payzant says that may be the biggest challenge for any school. Schools could spend three years just teaching children to read, then work another three years exclusively on math, and spend similar amounts of time on other subjects, he says.

That's why he's asking every school to choose one area to home in on, while ensuring that the children learn in other content areas as well. "We have to find a way to focus on one area, but not let everything else go," he tells Webster.

How Ohrenberger--or any other school--will solve that dilemma will be spelled out in its comprehensive school plan.

The plan, which Payzant requires of every Boston school, must answer broad questions, such as: Where do we want our school to be? How will our school get to where we want to be? How will we know our school is making progress?

Those far-reaching questions are similar to the ones that must be answered in any school's application for a Title I schoolwide designation-- with or without Payzant in the superintendent's seat.

The tumultuous history of desegregating Boston schools now actually makes it easier for the system to meet the schoolwide-program guidelines. Every school qualifies because a desegregation order spreads impoverished students throughout the system.

About two-thirds of the city's schoolchildren are eligible for a free or reduced-priced lunch subsidized by the federal government. Half of the system's students are African-American, one-fourth are Hispanic, 17 percent are white, and 9 percent are Asian.

By completing the comprehensive plan and ensuring its goals are met, schools do everything they need to qualify for federal aid.

"What was conceived in the legislation is absolutely consistent with comprehensive school planning," Payzant tells the group assembled in Assistant Principal McAlear's office. "There doesn't have to be a separate planning process for Title I."

For McAlear, that approach solves a lot of problems. A 1st grade teacher until she was promoted last fall, she struggled to help Title I students who left her classroom for a portion of every day.

"It was very disruptive to have pullouts," she says. "You try your best to have your children not miss what the other children are doing. You think you plan your program accordingly, but there are numerous interruptions that don't allow you to keep the schedule as you would like."

The provision of the law that calls for "multiple measures" of assessment reflects one of Payzant's strong beliefs.

By ending the distinction between city and federal money, Payzant believes that approach will stop. Schools, he hopes, will design a program that meets the needs of all children, ending the separation of projects for those with varying academic abilities.

By raising the standards for all students, those starting at the lowest rung will experience gains, according to the philosophy that underlies the new Title I program and Payzant's approach in Boston.

The biggest barrier, he says, is getting people to change the way they've always done things. "I've been pretty direct in making it clear that the pattern of using a pullout program with a remedial focus is no longer acceptable. Now, that does not mean that a targeted pullout isn't something a school can explore."

For instance, he cites Reading Recovery, a program in which trained teachers work individually with students outside the regular classroom, as a "targeted pullout" that he would sanction.

After his meeting in McAlear's office, the superintendent tours several 1st grade classrooms. Teachers tell their students to stand at their desks and greet him, a formality common in the city's schools.

At every stop, teachers ask their students to demonstrate what they're learning. One class reads letters they wrote him in anticipation of his visit, and the superintendent peeks over a child's shoulder as the child reads aloud.

Students in a bilingual classroom read as a group from their teacher's flashcards. Another class reads from weather journals.

Payzant says he looks for activity and demonstrations of student work in his school visits. He liked Ohrenberger Elementary's bulletin boards because they were decorated with students' writings and drawings, not posters selected by teachers. To his eye, it's a small sign that students are actively learning.

But the federal law that Payzant helped write won't settle for such nebulous observations.

The schools must show "adequate yearly progress" under benchmarks defined by the state. If they don't, the federal law requires the school system to intervene, firing principals and reassigning teachers to other jobs if all other attempts to improve the school fail.

Indeed, the leaders of the Boston system--or any other district receiving Title I aid--could be subjected to similar penalties if districtwide scores don't measure up to state standards.

That's why the last question to be answered in Payzant's comprehensive plan--how will we know our school is making progress--is so vital.

The provision of the law that calls for "multiple measures" of assessment reflects one of Payzant's strong beliefs. In Washington, he was one of the most vigorous proponents of ending schools' reliance on multiple-choice tests. In the future, schools must use assessments that include at least some extended-response questions and student portfolios.

The ambitious roster of tests does not need to be in place until 2000, a deadline intended to give schools time to prepare.

Payzant himself is getting ready, but he's not moving as quickly as some would like.

'It's amazing to me how even Tom so quickly falls back on the standardized test.'

Ellen Guiney
Executive Director,
Boston Plan
for Excellence in
the Public Schools

Shortly after arriving, he changed the testing system from the Metropolitan Achievement Test to the Stanford Nine. While the new test, like the one it replaced, relies too much on multiple-choice for his tastes, it has the potential for expanding into extended response.

"One of the reasons we picked it is because it's more aligned with where we are going versus where we are," he says. Nonetheless, he expresses some frustration that the Stanford test is not as progressive as he would like.

But that's not good enough for some Title I observers. Ellen Guiney, who worked for Sen. Kennedy when he chaired the committee that handled education legislation, says that in retrospect she wishes she hadn't compromised to stretch the deadline for comprehensive assessments until after Congress revisits the law in 1999.

"It's amazing to me how even Tom so quickly falls back on the standardized test," she says.

Testing is one of the areas where Guiney and Payzant, who worked together closely to win congressional approval for the new law and who generally support each other in their new positions, have what he characterizes as "friendly debates."

"We both would like to see an emphasis on a range of performance-based assessments," Payzant says. "The range of performance-based assessments available now doesn't meet the standards of reliability that give people a level of comfort to make decisions with high stakes."

Until they do, he says, they won't play a central role in Boston's assessment systems.

There are also questions about the commitment to the comprehensive plan itself. Support from the nonprofit sector and Payzant's continuous prodding are essential for the school plans to lead to actual, significant change, Guiney believes.

"It's important to have a school do a plan, but if [its leaders] have no support to do a deep plan, it's a form-filling-out exercise," Guiney says.

Payzant wants to be careful to avoid just such an outcome. But he concedes that the questions that need to be answered require so much research, consensus building, and community support that it's not an easy project.

"If it's done well, it can't be a plan that's written by the principal on a couple of weekends and run by the staff and site council before it's submitted," he says. To ensure that it's done according to his standards, he vows to read every one over the course of the year.

Payzant finishes his tour of six classrooms at Ohrenberger Elementary. McAlear invites him upstairs to drop in on the upper grades, but he must decline. He's already late for his next school visit, he has a meeting with the mayor in the afternoon, and he hasn't even begun to sort through the paperwork that started piling up on his desk yesterday afternoon.

Even though it's a Friday, he works until midnight, responding to electronic-mail messages, including one from McAlear.

Whether in Boston or Washington, there are some things about promoting education progress that never change.

The provision of the law that calls for "multiple measures" of assessment reflects one of Payzant's strong beliefs.

By ending the distinction between city and federal money, Payzant believes that approach will stop. Schools, he hopes, will design a program that meets the needs of all children, ending the separation of projects for those with varying academic abilities.

By raising the standards for all students, those starting at the lowest rung will experience gains, according to the philosophy that underlies the new Title I program and Payzant's approach in Boston.

The biggest barrier, he says, is getting people to change the way they've always done things. "I've been pretty direct in making it clear that the pattern of using a pullout program with a remedial focus is no longer acceptable. Now, that does not mean that a targeted pullout isn't something a school can explore."

For instance, he cites Reading Recovery, a program in which trained teachers work individually with students outside the regular classroom, as a "targeted pullout" that he would sanction.

After his meeting in McAlear's office, the superintendent tours several 1st grade classrooms. Teachers tell their students to stand at their desks and greet him, a formality common in the city's schools.

At every stop, teachers ask their students to demonstrate what they're learning. One class reads letters they wrote him in anticipation of his visit, and the superintendent peeks over a child's shoulder as the child reads aloud.

Students in a bilingual classroom read as a group from their teacher's flashcards. Another class reads from weather journals.

Payzant says he looks for activity and demonstrations of student work in his school visits. He liked Ohrenberger Elementary's bulletin boards because they were decorated with students' writings and drawings, not posters selected by teachers. To his eye, it's a small sign that students are actively learning.

But the federal law that Payzant helped write won't settle for such nebulous observations.

The schools must show "adequate yearly progress" under benchmarks defined by the state. If they don't, the federal law requires the school system to intervene, firing principals and reassigning teachers to other jobs if all other attempts to improve the school fail.

Indeed, the leaders of the Boston system--or any other district receiving Title I aid--could be subjected to similar penalties if districtwide scores don't measure up to state standards.

That's why the last question to be answered in Payzant's comprehensive plan--how will we know our school is making progress--is so vital.

The provision of the law that calls for "multiple measures" of assessment reflects one of Payzant's strong beliefs. In Washington, he was one of the most vigorous proponents of ending schools' reliance on multiple-choice tests. In the future, schools must use assessments that include at least some extended-response questions and student portfolios.

The ambitious roster of tests does not need to be in place until 2000, a deadline intended to give schools time to prepare.

Payzant himself is getting ready, but he's not moving as quickly as some would like.

'It's amazing to me how even Tom so quickly falls back on the standardized test.'

Ellen Guiney
Executive Director,
Boston Plan
for Excellence in
the Public Schools

Shortly after arriving, he changed the testing system from the Metropolitan Achievement Test to the Stanford Nine. While the new test, like the one it replaced, relies too much on multiple-choice for his tastes, it has the potential for expanding into extended response.

"One of the reasons we picked it is because it's more aligned with where we are going versus where we are," he says. Nonetheless, he expresses some frustration that the Stanford test is not as progressive as he would like.

But that's not good enough for some Title I observers. Ellen Guiney, who worked for Sen. Kennedy when he chaired the committee that handled education legislation, says that in retrospect she wishes she hadn't compromised to stretch the deadline for comprehensive assessments until after Congress revisits the law in 1999.

"It's amazing to me how even Tom so quickly falls back on the standardized test," she says.

Testing is one of the areas where Guiney and Payzant, who worked together closely to win congressional approval for the new law and who generally support each other in their new positions, have what he characterizes as "friendly debates."

"We both would like to see an emphasis on a range of performance-based assessments," Payzant says. "The range of performance-based assessments available now doesn't meet the standards of reliability that give people a level of comfort to make decisions with high stakes."

Until they do, he says, they won't play a central role in Boston's assessment systems.

There are also questions about the commitment to the comprehensive plan itself. Support from the nonprofit sector and Payzant's continuous prodding are essential for the school plans to lead to actual, significant change, Guiney believes.

"It's important to have a school do a plan, but if [its leaders] have no support to do a deep plan, it's a form-filling-out exercise," Guiney says.

Payzant wants to be careful to avoid just such an outcome. But he concedes that the questions that need to be answered require so much research, consensus building, and community support that it's not an easy project.

"If it's done well, it can't be a plan that's written by the principal on a couple of weekends and run by the staff and site council before it's submitted," he says. To ensure that it's done according to his standards, he vows to read every one over the course of the year.

Payzant finishes his tour of six classrooms at Ohrenberger Elementary. McAlear invites him upstairs to drop in on the upper grades, but he must decline. He's already late for his next school visit, he has a meeting with the mayor in the afternoon, and he hasn't even begun to sort through the paperwork that started piling up on his desk yesterday afternoon.

Even though it's a Friday, he works until midnight, responding to electronic-mail messages, including one from McAlear.

Whether in Boston or Washington, there are some things about promoting education progress that never change.

Vol. 16, Issue 30, Pages 34-37, 39

Published in Print: April 23, 1997, as Title Holder
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