School & District Management

In Boston, Stability Is Key Issue in Search for Leader

By Jeff Archer — March 28, 2006 4 min read
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With three months left in Thomas W. Payzant’s decade-long tenure as superintendent of the Boston schools, those charged with finding a successor are getting an earful from scholars, community groups, and civic leaders as they consider how much of a change agent the district needs.

Last week, with the aim of informing the transition, two prominent education policy groups released a study of the district’s accomplishments under Mr. Payzant. With the same intent, more papers on his track record are in the works for a conference planned for June.

“Strong Foundation, Evolving Challenges” is available from the Aspen Institute.

And later this week, a coalition of more than a dozen Boston community groups is set to hold a meeting to gather public comments to pass on to the search committee. Parents there will be urged to bring their concerns about the district to the finalists for the job once they’re announced next month.

Few dispute that Mr. Payzant, who is retiring, has left a positive mark on teaching and learning in the 60,000-student district. But while many civic leaders stress the need to build on his successes, some community activists worry that the search could lose sight of areas still in great need of improvement.

“The general feeling is things are going well, and there’s strong momentum for continuity,” said S. Paul Reville, the president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, in Cambridge, Mass., which is convening the June conference with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“At the same time, a lot of people feel moved just by the data, and their own personal experience, to say this is no time to declare victory,” Mr. Reville said.

A Steady Hand

On many counts, Boston finds itself in an enviable position compared with many other big-city districts. With the support of a mayorally appointed school board, Mr. Payzant has pushed a consistent set of improvement strategies based on new models of literacy and mathematics instruction, data-driven decisionmaking, and teacher professional development.

“There are plenty of things left, but the conversations in the schools are about instruction,” Mr. Payzant said in an interview last week. “You don’t have to start over on that.”

For four years in a row, Boston has been a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, an award sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation that recognizes improvement in city school systems. Recent test results show Boston’s poor and minority students outscoring national averages for their peers in similar systems.

Judy Wurtzel, a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute in Washington, said Boston has gotten past the point where the changes could be seen as a passing fancy, and has achieved an unusual degree of agreement on the critical elements of good instruction.

“Ten years of a change effort is almost unheard of,” said Ms. Wurtzel, who helped draft the report on Mr. Payzant’s tenure released jointly last week by the Aspen Institute and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, located in Providence, R.I.

“It’s a huge challenge to change the culture of what people think their jobs are,” she said. “I think Boston’s managed to get over that hump.”

And yet, the report notes, big challenges remain. Although test scores are up for all groups, improvement has tapered off in the past two years, and some achievement gaps between minority and white students have grown. High schools have been slowest to change. Many families also feel they’ve had little voice in decisions about school policy.

‘Clone’ Not Sought

Those are the concerns that local activists are bringing to the search process. An organization called Community Partners for a New Superintendent—formed last summer by Boston church, parent, and education groups—plans to hold an event April 1 to help craft messages to take to candidates for the job at official forums planned for later this spring.

“I think it’s just natural for the system to see itself in a more positive light than the parents of the kids or the activists in the community,” said Jackie Rivers, the executive director of MathPower, a nonprofit group that trains math teachers in Boston and is a member of the Community Partners coalition. “What we want to do is make sure both perspectives are well represented.”

Elizabeth Reilinger, a member of school board since 1994 and now its chairwoman, said she welcomes the input. She noted that the board included one of the Community Partners leaders on its search committee, which has hired a head-hunting firm and is awaiting a list of candidates. Finalists are to be named in late April.

“I think nine out of 10 times we agree,” Ms. Reilinger said.

“We’re not looking for someone to take a 180-degree turn in the way we approach education reform,” she added. “But at the same time, we’re not looking for Tom’s clone.”

On one point, there’s no dispute: Finding the right person won’t be easy.

“So many superintendents come into systems that are broken, and it’s pretty obvious what needs to be done to get things on the right track,” Ms. Wurtzel said. “Here, you have a new order of challenge, and there’s not a lot of experience out there on how to take a district that’s had 10 years of reform and a lot of success, and then accelerating that to the next level.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as In Boston, Stability Is Key Issue in Search for Leader

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