School & District Management Opinion

Taking Stock

By Anthony S. Bryk, Deanna Burney, Norm Fruchter & Warren Simmons — April 04, 2006 8 min read
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— Brian Jensen


This year an unusually high number of large urban school districts—notably, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and San Francisco—are going through leadership transitions. These changes can be traumatic, particularly if the superintendent leaves involuntarily. Often, such transitions produce dramatic shifts in direction; new leaders come in and try to undo what the previous team did and put their own stamp on a district.

Leadership transitions can also be occasions for thoughtful reflection. By taking stock of accomplishments and considering the challenges that remain, communities can make reasoned decisions about ways to build on success, while figuring out how to address daunting challenges.

The Boston public school system is in an enviable position to take the thoughtful, reflective course. Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant announced last year that he would retire in June 2006, ending a remarkably stable decade at the helm of a school system with a history of turbulence. During his tenure, Payzant has put in place a reform program built around instructional improvement that has won national acclaim.

To help prepare for the transition, Payzant asked the Aspen Institute, which operates a network of about a dozen superintendents from large urban districts, to undertake an analysis of the district’s progress to date and the challenges that still lie ahead. Aspen teamed with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, and the two organizations asked us to lead the study.

In carrying out the analysis, we examined a wealth of documents and data, and conducted interviews and focus groups with nearly 100 students, educators, central-office administrators, and community leaders. Although the list of those who participated did not constitute a representative sample of the Boston education community, it did provide a cross section of roles and perspectives, and yielded a remarkably consistent set of observations. These observations hold key lessons for other districts seeking to advance major instructional improvements. In a sense, the “Payzant era” in Boston is a best case example of what can be accomplished under stable, wise leadership. It also affords a sobering assessment of the work that still lies ahead in moving the transformation of large urban districts from rhetoric to reality—to actually affording an education of value to every student.

We took as our starting point the theory of action of the Boston reforms. That theory was laid out in a plan, Focus on Children, that was adopted in 1996 and revised in 2001. The theory emphasized five key elements: common expectations for all students; a curriculum that gives students access to rigorous content; common, high expectations about instructional practice; support for teachers; and assessments that provide information to guide instruction and hold schools accountable for results. The plan also stressed high-quality leadership at the school and district levels.

The district’s implementation of the plan produced a number of important accomplishments:

Higher student achievement. The proportion of students passing the state test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, increased from 1998 to 2005, although gains were strongest in the earlier years. For example, in 4th grade, the percentage of African-American students passing the state’s English-language-arts test—that is, showing at least a “partial understanding of subject matter”—rose from 56 percent in 1998, to 71 percent in 2005. Boston’s 4th and 8th graders performed as well as or better than their counterparts in other large central cities in both reading and mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The “Payzant era” in Boston is a best case example of what can be accomplished under stable, wise leadership.

Moreover, a study conducted for the Boston Private Industry Council found that 74 percent of students in the class of 2003 were enrolled in education or training, the highest enrollment rate in the 18 years in which the follow-up study of graduates has been conducted.

Stronger instructional capacity. The achievement gains did not come about by accident. The district has made a concerted effort to build instructional capacity and improve the ability of teachers and school leaders to teach effectively; these efforts have taken root and borne fruit.

We found, for example, that the districtwide mathematics curriculum and its instructional model, known as the workshop model, are widely used. The previous system, in which schools were essentially free to adopt their own programs, had resulted in what one of our interviewees called “Greek city-states” with wide variations in quality.

Boston also invested heavily in school-based coaches, which teachers and principals—after some initial skepticism—broadly support. And the district created a widely admired system for preparing teachers and principals.

An improved district culture and climate. To a degree rare in large urban school systems, educators throughout Boston focus on instruction and learning. Teachers talk knowledgeably about their students’ learning; principals talk capably about instruction; and central-office administrators are framing more of their decisions in terms of the likely effects on schools’ ability to deliver quality instruction to all children.

An infrastructure to support schools. The district has also put in place a number of tools and procedures to advance continuous improvement that can serve as a key resource for Payzant’s successor. They include stronger lines of communication, an electronic tool to provide information on student achievement, and stronger central-office operations.

Despite these accomplishments, Boston still faces a number of challenges. In some ways, these challenges differ from those of most districts because Boston has accomplished so much. Boston is moving from “basic” to “proficiency” or beyond for the full range of students.

The data on achievement show that, despite gains, the system still has a long way to go. Few students reach the “proficient” level of achievement on state tests, and achievement gaps between white and African-American students remain substantial. Large numbers of students also fail to graduate from high school in four years.

Several key organizational challenges remain:

Equalizing school and instructional quality. Performance and instructional conditions vary widely. Parents go to considerable lengths to try to enroll their children in schools perceived as superior. Of particular concern is instruction for students with disabilities and English-language learners. Achievement for students with disabilities is low, and the gaps between students in special education and those in regular education are widening. Teachers of English-language learners feel a need for support to address student needs. In some cases, teachers said, ELL students are being referred to special education to receive additional instructional attention.

Strengthening the vertical alignment. A lack of coordination within the central office continues to stoke confusion in schools. Although Payzant has reorganized the office to strengthen the supervision of principals, improve human-resource supports, and streamline services for students, people told us that the office remains “siloed,” with little sharing of information and coordination of effort from department to department.

Enhancing systemwide communication and community involvement. Although the district has reached out to partners and community organizations, some parents and community leaders still feel they lack a seat at the table where decisions are made. There is also a perception of top-down decisionmaking by the district leadership. One headmaster reported that he did not find out that his school was being converted into small learning communities until he heard it at a meeting.

The Boston experience provides several lessons for other districts. First, Boston shows that time and stability in district governance make a difference. A decade of continuity in superintendent, mayoral, and school board leadership has given the district the time it needed to make the progress it has. The stability enabled the district to overcome the deeply bred skepticism common in school districts and to build and refine the district and school infrastructure to sustain student-achievement gains. After a decade, district staff members and community partners are beginning to take ownership of the reform and to help it evolve.

The challenge for Boston and other urban districts involves preserving and building on the successful reforms already in place, while simultaneously pushing forward on even more dramatic improvements in student learning.

Second, despite the accomplishments, Boston also shows that the steady progress brought about to date still leaves many children without any real hope of a productive future. To graduate all their students ready for college or careers, urban districts must tremendously accelerate the rate of improvement. The past 10 years of reform in Boston offer a sobering account of what it will likely take to effect deeper and even more significant improvements.

The challenge for Boston and other urban districts involves a prudent balance—preserving and building on the successful reforms already in place, while simultaneously pushing forward on even more dramatic improvements in student learning.

Too often, communities emphasize the need for change as they search for a new superintendent, and new leaders respond by shifting course. A superintendent transition can, however, be an opportunity for the community—school board, business and community leaders, parents, and district staff—to take stock of a district’s accomplishments and challenges, to consider what reforms should be retained, and to explore what new efforts are needed to reach higher levels of performance.

An independent case study such as ours of Boston can be one tool among several that communities might use to promote transitions that accelerate progress, rather than offer another round of meaningless change.

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as Taking Stock


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