Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why Boston schools are improving, part 2

In my last post I wrote that stable leadership, outside pressure, and a relentless focus on instruction have all contributed to the Boston Public Schools' steady improvement over the past ten to fifteen years. Today I offer reasons four through six for that improvement.

4. Competition. Since 1994, when Massachusetts law first allowed for charter schools in the Commonwealth, independent groups have been eager to establish schools in Boston. Today there are fourteen Boston charters, among them some of the highest performing public schools in the city or even the state. Controversy continues about whether charter schools, which admit students through a lottery system, serve their fair share of English language learners and students with special needs. Still, one thing seems certain: the looming threat of the charter school movement motivated the Boston Teachers Union to embrace an innovation of their own, pilot schools.

Pilot schools represent a collaboration between the district and the union, where certain work rules and district mandates are suspended. Pilot schools, which are designed to be laboratories of innovation, have autonomy over budget, staffing, schedule, curriculum, and calendar. Twenty-three pilot schools now serve 9000 Boston students, with pilot schools for the arts, for science, for leadership, and for students who are over age. Like charters, pilot schools attract teachers and students who share a particular vision, and they often serve those students particularly well.

Thus Boston is no longer a monolithic system. Instead it offers a menu of schools that challenge one another toward constant improvement.

5. Careful attention to managing innovation. The pilot school program demonstrates that the leadership and often the teachers of Boston are willing to take risks and innovate to give kids a better chance at an education. Of course, eagerness to innovate can bring problems of its own. Like many cities surrounded by universities and philanthropic organizations, Boston sometimes fields more offers for partnership than it can handle. It's easy for a school system that's hungry for funding to fragment its attention among hundreds of small projects, each backed by enthusiastic advocates, each good in itself, but each a distraction from the district's core strategy. Boston, instead, has sought to convince its partners to throw their joint efforts behind the superintendent's priorities.

Moreover, the district has taken a measured approach to innovation. Usually it has allowed a new program, such as coaching for school change or a workshop model for building reading comprehension, to take root first in a few schools. Often these efforts have been piloted by the Boston Plan for Excellence using philanthropic money, only to be brought in house under the core school budget once the kinks have been ironed out. This careful, systematic approach has sometimes frustrated those who want to see change come faster, but it has guarded the district against the whipsaw effect of constantly embracing new enthusiasms.

6. Attention to data. Both the school district and the Boston Plan for Excellence have embraced the notion of delving into student data to drive reform. School teams examine student work for evidence of the quality of assignments. BPE developed a tool called FAST-R to diagnose students' successes and errors in reading comprehension. The team developed an early warning system for identifying potential future dropouts so prevention efforts can be spent where they're needed. The district signed up to be part of NAEP's Trial Urban District Assessment program. This willingness to gather and examine data with all its potential for embarrassing findings has been key to driving an honest, hard-headed approach to reform.

So there you have it - my list for the factors I think have been most important in helping a mid-sized urban district elicit steadily rising performance from its students. Steady leadership, outside pressure, and competition have helped to drive the process. A clear focus on instruction and a devotion to data have helped to characterize it. And a careful, managed approach to innovation has kept the course steady. Now it's the job of everyone involved to continue the course and work for even more substantial change.

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