School & District Management Opinion

Boston’s Pilot Schools

By Dan French — April 18, 2006 8 min read
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All too often, teachers’ unions and school districts are pitted against one another, with the result that little meaningful reform is ever achieved. Yet we will never create and sustain successful urban public schools unless all parties are unified around a common commitment to excellence and equity, with clear strategies to get there. The question, then, is how to create powerful models of district and union collaboration that result in improved engagement and achievement for the students they serve.

At my Boston-based nonprofit organization, the Center for Collaborative Education, we believe we have found such a model. In January, the center released a report documenting significant achievement by students who attend the city’s “pilot schools.” (“Boston’s Small ‘Pilot’ Schools Found to Outperform Others,” Jan. 25, 2006)


These small, mission-driven schools are outperforming district averages on every student-engagement and -performance indicator. Pilot schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels have higher attendance and lower transfer, suspension, and dropout rates than the district average. On the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, pilot schools surpass the district averages at every grade level in both English and math, and at both the passing and advanced/proficient levels. A significantly greater percentage of pilot high school graduates are enrolled in higher education one year after graduation. It is no surprise, then, that pilot schools have among the longest waiting lists in the district.

The result of a partnership between the Boston public school system and the Boston Teachers Union, the pilot schools were opened in 1995 to promote increased choice options within the district, largely in response to 1994 state legislation creating first-time charter schools. Through an innovative teachers’ union contract, each school has autonomy over its budget, staffing, governance, curriculum and assessment, and school calendar. These areas of autonomy provide increased flexibility to organize schools and staffing to best meet students’ needs.

The district and the teachers’ union have agreed to allow approved pilot schools to be free from constraints in order to be more innovative. They are exempt from district policies and mandates. Teachers who work in pilot schools are exempt from union-contract work rules, while still receiving union salary, benefits, and accrual of seniority within the district. Teachers voluntarily choose to work at pilot schools; when hired, they sign what is called an “election-to-work agreement,” which stipulates the work conditions for the school for the coming academic year. This agreement is revisited and revised annually with teacher input.

Pilot schools’ governing boards have greater authority than traditional school councils. The governing board sets the school’s vision, hires and annually evaluates the principal (with the superintendent having final authority), and approves the yearly budget. The boards consist of the principal, faculty and parent representatives, community members (from higher education, business, and community agencies), and, for high schools, students.

Pilot schools can be created in two ways: through an application to start a new school, or through the conversion of an existing public school, if a minimum of two-thirds of the faculty votes to acquire pilot status. In both cases, proposals must be approved by a joint, district-and-teachers’-union steering committee, and then by the Boston School Committee.

The number of pilot schools has grown considerably over the years, despite declining district enrollment. From an original five schools enrolling about 900 students, the total has grown to 17 Boston pilot schools and two Horace Mann charter schools (which have dual pilot status), spanning pre-K through grade 12 and serving approximately 5,900 students, about 10 percent of the district’s total enrollment. Overall, the pilot school enrollment generally matches that of the regular Boston public schools by race, gender, income status, and, increasingly, special education status.

Why do most pilot schools get strong results? They use their autonomy to create curricula, assessments, and a school culture that will support high expectations and achievement. With the same per-pupil budget as district schools, pilot schools have, when compared with the district average, low class sizes, secondary teacher-student loads that average 55 students per teacher, substantial common planning time for faculty members to improve instruction, and a nurturing culture that provides substantial support to students through advisories and learning centers. Also, pilot schools do not rely on course completion as the sole measure for graduation: Their students graduate when they can demonstrate mastery over a set of competencies, through portfolio reviews and exhibitions, before groups of adults from inside and outside the school.

While they operate quite differently from other Boston public schools, pilots have influenced district practices in several ways. The success of pilot high schools contributed to Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant’s decision to transform four of the district’s large high schools into facilities housing multiple small schools. Similarly, the pilot approach to curriculum and performance assessment was one influence in shaping a new district graduation policy that enables any high school to propose a unique course sequence and assessment for graduation, as long as these equal or exceed the district’s standards.

Over the years, we who have studied and been part of this development have learned many lessons. The foremost is that the pilot model—granting schools control over their resources in exchange for greater accountability—can be a powerful vehicle for reforming urban public schools. It is based on a transformed district and union partnership, one in which each party gives up its historical authority, to let the teachers and school leaders working directly with students and their families make the decisions best for their children.

A second lesson is that the benefit of autonomy cannot be gained through an incremental approach. We have found that there is little gained educationally when, say, the union grants a schedule change by means of a side letter, or the district office grants a waiver request from a curriculum requirement. Such incremental movements do not lead to gaining the full scope of autonomies that schools need, nor do they allow faculties to think in fundamentally different ways about how to organize schools and instruction.

Innovative schools have a greater chance at sustaining their success if they are members of a network of like-minded schools, and assisted by a third-party organization.

Third, autonomy and accountability go hand in hand. Autonomy is not the goal—ultimately, it comes down to how schools use their autonomy to build a school with a unified vision and high-quality instruction and support for each student. Every pilot school is held to high standards of performance by undertaking a school quality-review process every five years, using a set of benchmarks that articulate the criteria for high-performing schools.

Fourth, school size is an important factor in success. Pilot schools have intentionally chosen to be small, knowing that the desired qualities of personal support for every student, collaboration among faculty members focused on improving instruction, and high academic challenge are more easily achieved in a small setting.

Last, innovative schools have a greater chance at sustaining their success if they are members of a network of like-minded schools, and assisted by a third-party organization. We have provided the pilot schools with coordination and support, including coaching services, professional development, advocacy, research, and financial management. The Pilot Network creates an opportunity for learning among schools, with teacher-sharing conferences, leadership retreats, committees on fiscal autonomy and special education, and study groups on race and achievement.

Working collaboratively with the district, the Center for Collaborative Education and the network have helped develop a lump-sum, per-pupil budget formula; more-flexible policies on human resources; and a sensible timetable and professional-development plan for pilots to enroll substantially separate special education students. At the same time, the pilot partners have sought to ensure that there is teacher representation on each pilot school’s governing board and a dispute-resolution process in every school to address teacher concerns.

In urban districts across the nation, the No Child Left Behind Act has resulted in greater centralization of federally mandated practices, more-frequent testing, and increased turnover among new teachers coming into the profession. While many states and districts publicly claim to have rising test scores, increasing data show that as test scores go up, the pool of students who are succeeding in our public schools is shrinking—and that those hurt are disproportionately low-income students and students of color. Meanwhile, the rise in test scores does not necessarily transfer to other measures of achievement, such as SAT scores and college enrollment and completion.

The Boston pilot school model is a fundamentally different approach to improving urban public education, with schools granted control over their resources in exchange for increased accountability. It has proved, over 10 years, to be an effective strategy. Representing a departure from how teachers’ unions and school districts have traditionally done business, the model presents risks for both parties. Yet, so far, the risks are reaping rewards. Both the district and the union grow stronger as students and families are better served.


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