School & District Management

Time on His Side

By Jeff Archer — June 06, 2006 8 min read
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In a field of revolving-door leaders, Thomas W. Payzant is the exception to the rule. Amid the rise and fall of superintendents in city after city, he has led the Boston Public Schools for nearly 11 years. Now, as he prepares to retire at the end of this month, the district offers a rare glimpse of what’s possible with stable leadership in urban education.

It’s a story with many strands, including new curricula, data systems, and teaching methods. A critical ingredient has been staff training woven into the fabric of teachers’ jobs. The aim has been to change the way educators think and go about their work.

Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant makes a point during a May 24 meeting of the Boston School Committee. He is retiring at the end of this month.

“You can do all kinds of innovative things around the edges,” said Mr. Payzant, 65, whose successor has yet to be named. “But if it’s every school, you’ve got to have a strategy for working with all the people you’ve got.”

Throughout this city’s school system, a collaborative ethos is evident. Would-be teachers and principals are learning the ropes by working side by side in schools with seasoned educators and administrators. In a 6th grade class, a teacher gives a lesson on the Middle East as four of her colleagues look on. At a high school across town, English teachers discuss helping students find meaning in what they read.

Such scenes were anything but the norm in Boston a decade ago. As remains true in many districts, teaching here used to take place in isolation. Training, for the most part, was disconnected from the work at hand. “It was sink or swim,” said Jo-Ann Rogers, a veteran Boston educator who coaches teachers at Charlestown High School. “This next group of teachers is working in a setup where they don’t know anything different.”

Mr. Payzant did not bring the Boston schools to this point overnight. He rolled out initiatives not all at once, but only when they made sense. The idea was to start small, test things out, and retool them. And he focused on building consensus. All were radical notions in an era of hard-charging, quick-turnaround leaders.

Steady Course: Over more than 10 years, the Boston school district has refined its approach.

January 1992: A mayorally appointed governing panel takes over after state lawmakers abolish the city’s elected school committee.

Paradoxically, while the measured approach is credited for Boston’s success in raising student achievement, it also gets blamed by some for not producing more. The result has been a lively debate in the city over what kind of leadership the 58,000-student system needs next.

“We’re kind of at the point where all the limits of the strategy to date are becoming more obvious,” said Richard F. Elmore, an expert on leadership at Harvard University’s graduate school of education. “But at least we have the luxury of having got that far.”

In the widely read book Good to Great, the business writer Jim Collins describes what he calls a “level 5 leader,” someone who is unassuming, humble, and prefers to build structural changes rather than adopt flashy programs.

By many accounts, Boston got just such a leader when Mr. Payzant was hired in 1995, four years after Massachusetts lawmakers abolished the fractious, locally elected school board and gave the city’s mayor the authority to appoint a new one. The superintendent’s almost-robotic even-temperedness is often joked about, in fact.

“During the interview process, with him the one concern was that he didn’t present a charismatic, dynamic, dramatic personality,” said Elizabeth Reilinger, who has been on the school board since 1994.

Courtney Sheppeck, second from left, prepares a group of teachers at the Murphy School for what they will see in her English classroom.

A Boston native, Mr. Payzant had by that time run districts in four states, including 10 years at the helm of the San Diego Unified School District. He also had served a stint as the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education under President Clinton.

As a result, he came to Boston understanding both the importance of academic standards and the politics of policymaking. He says he also came convinced that creating a district of successful schools required more than just replicating what had worked in a few.

“The number-one factor that schools can influence to improve student achievement is the quality of instruction,” he said in a recent interview. “That means a very targeted form of professional development.”

That thinking led early on to Boston’s “Six Essentials,” a proclamation about the key levers for school improvement, including data-driven instruction, shared leadership, and the alignment of all resources to raise the level of teaching and learning. Much of what followed were efforts to help schools put those concepts into action. Many of the steps were designed under the stewardship of the district’s nonprofit partner, the Boston Plan for Excellence.

The signature initiative is “collaborative coaching and learning,” a process for teachers to hone their craft together by analyzing one another’s work and the results of that work. It resembles how doctors in training learn to diagnose by working in groups to examine patients.

The method was on display on a recent morning at the K-8 Murphy Elementary School in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood, a gritty area south of downtown that is home to a mix of immigrants from Haiti, the Cape Verde Islands, and Vietnam, as well as American-born blacks and whites.

In a workroom next to the library, 6th grade English teacher Courtney Sheppeck explained to four of her fellow educators the aim of a lesson they would soon see her teach—to let students practice a set of strategies to use when reading something they don’t understand.

Once inside her classroom, the other teachers spread out among the students so they could see Ms. Sheppeck and watch how students reacted. For the short lesson, Ms. Sheppeck had students read passages from a book and discuss how to try to clarify their meaning when they get stumped.

Tarijsha Janey, a history teacher at the school, later sits next to a student as she observes Ms. Sheppeck give the lesson.

As was clear when the teachers later debriefed, the intent wasn’t merely to share a model lesson, but also to critique it. With instructional coach Lauren Grace leading the discussion, the teachers related what they learned from Ms. Sheppeck’s technique and gave suggestions for improving it.

Noting that many students focused on words they didn’t recognize, and not on larger meanings in the text, science teacher Adam Shopis offered: “I wonder if there’s a relation between the kind of questions you ask?”

Ms. Sheppeck credits the coaching with changing teachers’ informal banter at school to focus more on instruction. “We’re given this framework for talking about kids’ work, what works and what doesn’t,” she said. “It’s like planting those seeds, and then you’re always in that mind-set.”

Progress Under Payzant

The performance of Boston 10th graders on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System has improved, but achievement gaps by race and ethnicity remain.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Progress Under Payzant

SOURCE: “Strong Foundation, Evolving Challenges,” Aspen Institute and Annenberg Institute for School Reform

Getting to this point took time. In 1997, when Boston first pilot-tested teaching coaches in 27 schools, coaches did more one-on-one work with teachers. But over time, district leaders realized that coaches could have a greater effect by encouraging problem-solving within groups of teachers.

Rachel Curtis, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said the example shows the value of an evolving plan. She pointed out that Boston started its in-house programs to prepare new principals and teachers only three years ago, after refining other elements of its strategy.

“Our theory of action has been tested, and we’ve tweaked it where it needed to be tweaked,” Ms. Curtis said. “So now we can prepare leaders to implement that theory of action, and we can take them out to schools and show them that at a very high level.”

During Mr. Payzant’s tenure, the Boston schools have generally matched or bettered statewide gains in student test scores. The district is the only system in the country to have been named a finalist five years running for the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation’s annual prize honoring improvement in urban districts.

During the debriefing session that follows the lesson, Amy Callen, a math teacher, discusses what she saw in her colleague's classroom.

And yet, the superintendent will leave amid questions about what might have been. Overall performance levels have tapered off on some tests in recent years, and while all racial and ethnic subgroups of students have improved, some gaps in achievement between them have increased.

Barbara Neufeld, the president of Education Matters, a local research group that has studied many aspects of the district’s efforts, said that while its instructional methods can be powerful, the “implementation varies enormously.”

That’s the case, she said, with “workshop,” the core teaching method Mr. Payzant has promoted. It involves short lessons and opportunities for students to work independently and to share what they learn.

“There are some people who do not want to do this model—a small number of people,” said Ms. Neufeld. “But otherwise, it’s more the case that people who are using a superficial implementation don’t understand its underpinnings.”

Mr. Payzant admits to areas where he left too much to chance. Early on, he said, he should have allowed fewer programs for teaching literacy, a lesson he took to heart by later adopting a single mathematics program that stressed the application of concepts.

Likewise, he said, he erred in initially letting high schools come up with their own plans for creating more personalized learning environments for students. After seeing little progress at some schools, he imposed districtwide models.

The group also includes Adam Shopis, a science teacher at Murphy.

“I was more hopeful there would be more bottom-up initiative for some of the changes,” Mr. Payzant said.

Others say, better to have gone a little slow than too fast.

Timothy Knowles, a former deputy superintendent for teaching and learning in Boston, said he sometimes wished Mr. Payzant had pushed harder. But had the superintendent done so, he might have wound up out of a job, like so many big-city superintendents elsewhere, said Mr. Knowles, who now directs the Center for Urban School Improvement at the University of Chicago. And that, he added, would have been a shame.

“Tom has done something pretty remarkable for any urban district, and that is to scale up an incredibly ambitious kind of work,” Mr. Knowles said. “It’s not teachers teaching curriculum from a box. The work is dependent on creating a system full of people who are professionals.”

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Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as Progress Under Payzant


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