Yesterday's post presented evidence that Boston schools have steadily improved over the past ten years. Today I'll talk about six reasons for that steady improvement. These aren't the only reasons, and they may not even be the most important, but based on my own observations, I think these are key factors that could operate in any school system.
1. Stable leadership. Tom Payzant spent ten years as superintendent, and Carol Johnson, who succeeded him in 2007, has just signed onto another four-year contract. Such stability is almost unheard of in urban education, where mutual discontent between school committees and superintendents leads to an average tenure at the top of less than three years. Each time a new leader comes in, there's a period of adjustment. There are personnel changes. New priorities rise to the top. Some programs are dropped or starved of funds while others are launched. Time is lost and progress sputters.
One reason Boston superintendents can stay is that the school committee is appointed by the mayor, not elected. This makes it harder for one disgruntled or ambitious faction to undermine the superintendent's agenda. Some citizens view an appointed school committee as an insult to democracy, but voters have wisely approved it. They elect the mayor, let his choose his team, and hold him accountable for the results.
2. Steady outside pressure. To have an outside partner, sympathetic but demanding, examining your work can be infuriating but helpful. The Boston Plan for Excellence played this role in Boston. Ellen Guiney came to head the plan just as Tom Payzant arrived to lead the school district. They had worked together before, when Payzant was President Clinton's Assistant Secretary of Education and Guiney was Senator Kennedy's top education aide. They shared a dedication to kids and a deep interest in research.
Under Guiney, BPE kept a steady focus on the district's performance. The Plan pushed for changes in teacher hiring and how professional development money was spent. It pressed for closer attention to problems with special education. It advocated for new coaching programs.
Most of all, BPE pushed to increase the pace of reform. Bureaucracies tend to drag their feet, but BPE was a terrier nipping at the school district's heels.
3. Focus on instruction. BPE and the superintendent shared a belief that getting all kids to high levels meant big changes in how teachers taught in the classroom. Together, they carefully introduced new literacy programs, followed by new, more demanding math curriculum. BPE piloted and the district embraced a program of instructional coaching, where skilled coaches worked closely with teams of teachers inside the schools. Professional development became increasingly school-based, team, based, and focused on student work and the content teachers needed to address every day in the classroom.
Changing what and how teachers teach is slow, demanding work, but the Boston Public Schools now have some of the most coherent curriculum and most effective teachers in the state--teachers who can reach not only the eager, high-achieving kids but also the reluctant and confused.
Next time I'll talk about three more key factors behind Boston's steady improvement.