Plenty of Advice Awaits Boston Schools’ Next Leader

Experts hope district can preserve what works, zero in on weaknesses.

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Urban districts aren’t known for smooth transitions in leadership. Rather than build on the work of their predecessors, new superintendents often bring wholesale changes in strategy.

Boston hopes to avoid that. To help the district’s next top administrator tackle its challenges without scrapping what’s working, a group of researchers was enlisted to take stock of the tenure of Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, who retired last month after more than a decade on the job.

Thomas W. Payzant, who retired last month, is shown with Jose Zayas, 10, the winner of a poetry contest, at a school board meeting in May.
Thomas W. Payzant, who retired last month, is shown with Jose Zayas, 10, the winner of a poetry contest, at a school board meeting in May.
—File photo by Michael Dwyer for Education Week

“There are a lot of good things that happened over the last 10 years that need to be continued, deepened, broadened, modified, and extended,” said S. Paul Reville, the president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy in Cambridge, Mass., which commissioned the studies.

“I think it enhances the possibility of continuity of the strong strategies of Payzant’s term if you have a solid, running record and commentary,” he added.

With $400,000 from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested heavily in the Boston district under Mr. Payzant, the project produced papers assessing progress in six areas: human resources, leadership training, teaching and learning, use of data, high schools, and special education.

The authors found plenty to fault. Presented at a June 19-20 conference here, their papers note such major problems as high rates of teacher attrition, costly and ineffective programs for students with learning difficulties, and a central office that fails to adequately support and hold schools accountable.

At the same time, they paint a picture of a district generally headed in the right direction, particularly in its efforts to improve instruction. As the New York University-based researcher Norm Fruchter suggested at the conference, the 58,000-student Boston system isn’t in need of a turnaround.

“It would be a disaster if a new superintendent decided to redo all of this, and set off on a whole different set of instructional interventions,” he said.

Staying Power

When Mr. Payzant arrived in 1995, Boston had little to lose. He was hired after state lawmakers disbanded the city’s elected school board, which had been plagued by infighting, and handed the district’s reins to Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

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With the backing of Boston’s political and business leaders, Mr. Payzant pursued a consistent course of instructional improvement, based largely on new districtwide curricula and job-imbedded professional development for teachers and school leaders. ("Time on His Side," June 7, 2006.)

In fact, some analysts say that what makes Boston different isn’t so much its strategies as how long it’s stuck with them. By the time he retired, Mr. Payzant was one of the nation’s longest-serving urban superintendents.

“The remarkable part of the story here is the longevity, the persistence, and the continuous improvement of this,” Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Providence, R.I.-based Annenberg Institute for School Reform, said at the Rennie Center conference.

But while Boston has seen a steady increase in achievement for students of all racial and ethnic groups, the achievement gaps between them have increased on many measures. Moreover, the high school completion rate has been frustratingly stagnant.

Offering some clue to the cause of those mixed results, the new papers on Mr. Payzant’s years as superintendent pointed out some clear operational successes, as well as shortcomings. Each made specific recommendations.

For example, while crediting the district with streamlining its teacher-recruitment processes, the paper on human resources cited estimates that more than half of new teachers leave within three years on the job, underscoring the need for in-school supports for those leaning toward quitting.

“If they come into a school that is chaotic and dysfunctional, they are going to lean away,” said Morgaen L. Donaldson, a doctoral student at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, who drafted the paper with Harvard professor Susan Moore Johnson.

Another striking statistic: Boston spends $28,000 per student on some special education programs, but only 32 percent of students in those programs graduate from high school. Ellen C. Guiney, the lead author of the report on the topic and the executive director of the nonprofit Boston Plan for Excellence, called for more inclusion of such students in regular classes.

Data collection was another area where Mr. Payzant got average marks. The paper on the topic credited him with launching an online tool that lets teachers analyze student-performance data, but questioned whether it provided the most useful information, and whether the central office needed similar tools.

“What do we need to do to move to a system of assessments that provides teachers and central office with the information they need to work more effectively?” posed Harvard education professor Richard J. Murnane, who wrote the paper with graduate students Elizabeth A. City and Kristan Singleton.

Even the instructional strategies for which Mr. Payzant is best known were found in need of improvement. Researchers said the quality of their implementation varied widely, especially in high schools, where teacher collaboration was more difficult because of scheduling and other challenges.

“It is the organization and leadership of the district that’s going to matter most in moving the district forward,” said Barbara Neufeld, the president of Education Matters, a local research group. “It’s going to be really a rethinking of how central works with itself and with the schools.”

Missing Piece?

Despite such pointed critiques, some community leaders said the reports were too kind to the outgoing superintendent. In particular, they complained, the papers neglected the issue of public engagement, which they argue was one of Mr. Payzant’s biggest weak spots.

“I am just sick and tired of this line that’s been promoted here—that they even have resonating across the country—that this school system is in the midst of serious reform,” said Hubie Jones, a local activist and a former dean of the school of social work at Boston University.

Mr. Jones helped draft a separate report on the district released last month by a coalition of community organizations. The groups called on Boston’s next superintendent to produce, within six months of taking office, a plan to eliminate achievement gaps within five years.

Mr. Payzant took part in the Rennie Center conference and had filled most of a yellow note pad by the time it wrapped up. While he agreed with many of the criticisms he heard there, he disputed the idea that he didn’t seek enough public input.

“I don’t think anybody has spent more hours in the community than I have,” he told the gathering. “Perhaps the way in which it’s been gone about has not been what it should be.”

Mr. Reville of the Rennie Center agreed that Mr. Payzant’s record on community engagement needs to be examined, and said an additional paper on the topic would be included when the research was compiled into a book.

Just how useful Boston’s next superintendent finds the recommendations in it remains to be seen. The district has yet to announce candidates for the job.

Elizabeth Reilinger, the chairwoman of the Boston School Committee, said that, on balance, the assessments were helpful. But she noted how tall an order they’ve created for Mr. Payzant’s successor. “The dilemma you get into is that there’s little acknowledgment of where the trade-offs are, or how do you put your resources and emphasis on one rather than another,” she said. “It’s the integration of the whole that gets lost when we get to pick apart and dissect the parts to the point that we have.”

Vol. 25, Issue 42, Page 10

Published in Print: July 12, 2006, as Plenty of Advice Awaits Boston Schools’ Next Leader
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