Learning a lesson of consistency; test scores are up in Boston, but some find district's approach to school reform a tight fit

Sarah Carr
January 18, 2005
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- When Thomas Payzant took over as superintendent of Boston Public Schools in 1995, he worried that some students were lucky enough to attend the "star schools," where the best teachers educated poor children with stunning success.

But just some.

He thought it wasn't enough to have a handful of schools and teachers beating the odds in struggling urban neighborhoods. He wanted to have a whole district that could do it.

Payzant has come to epitomize a national movement that is also being felt in Milwaukee Public Schools and elsewhere. In the last decade, urban school reform has shifted from the notion of the valiant principal who revitalizes a school, but whose work cannot be duplicated, to focus on the heroic superintendent, often top-down in approach, who creates more consistent standards among schools.

"There are a lot of stories about heroic and individual school change that are interesting but can't go to (large) scale," said Robert Felner, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Louisville. "You need something that is systemic, and that doesn't depend on the few heroic principals and the heavy lifting they are able to do despite the system."

As school districts across the country, including MPS, experiment with school reform based at the system level, the experience and tensions in this New England city are instructive.

The trick, in Boston and everywhere else, is to balance the more heavy-handed, top-down approach with a respect for the creative front-line skills of teachers and administrators. It's a delicate act: to become more consistent without becoming rigid; to be hierarchical without squashing grass-roots fervor; to elevate the worst schools without stifling the best.

To pull it off requires nurturing what seem to be opposing philosophies, as articulated by Deborah Meier, who has started successful schools in Boston and New York, and Ellen Guiney, the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence and a big-time booster of Payzant.

For Meier, education "is rocket science" that cannot be processed and packaged. She's not comfortable with what she perceives as a cookie-cutter approach to school reform. "Systems," she said, "want everyone to be alike."

For Guiney, the classroom is not a place for individual experimentation. "I don't think innovation is what we need here," she said. "I know a lot of people think that is heresy. But education is like heart surgery. Do you want a heart surgeon to be innovative, to try something new?"

Five years ago, South Boston High School, located in a working-class Irish neighborhood, was notorious for low performance and racial violence. Payzant divided South Boston into three separate schools, each housed on a different floor in the old building. Today, the three schools are slowly improving.

"This is not just a restructuring exercise," said Payzant. "The reason we are betting so much on small is that it provides you with opportunities to do some things that being big does not."

At Excel High School, which has the best test scores of the three small schools, scores in some subjects are on par with state averages. In 2004, for instance, 15 percent of Excel's 10th-graders failed the state's standardized math test, matching 15 percent of the state's 10th-graders. The challenge for Excel, and many other Boston schools, is to get more students out of the lowest passing category, the "needs improvement" designation.

Rahshea Morgan, a 17-year-old who attends Excel, says she is glad the changes were made before she arrived.

"They are more strict about us learning and making sure we are doing what we are supposed to do," she said.

Her friend Shaneka Davis, 17, noted that her hardest class previously didn't exist. "This is the first year in South history that they have Advanced Placement English, so I guess the school is getting better."

Now, several more high schools in Boston are being broken apart, some of them much more successful schools than South. And Boston is touted in education circles as an example of the incremental progress that accompanies stable leadership and systemic reform.

Test scores have gradually improved districtwide, and the gap between city and state scores has narrowed. In 2001, 40 percent of Boston's 10th-graders failed the English language arts portion of the state's standardized test; by 2004 that figure had dropped to 25 percent. In math, the drop was from 47 percent to 27 percent.

Payzant's unusually long tenure, made possible in part by a mayor-appointed school board, helped stabilize a district where school committee meetings were infamous for being raucous and unproductive. In October, the Council of the Great City Schools, which advocates for the country's largest, inner-city school districts, awarded Payzant its urban school leadership award, considered one of the highest honors in the field.

In many respects, Payzant represents a more business-like approach to urban education, focusing on consistency, top-down decisions, and a relentless focus on standardized test scores. Critics charge that some key ingredients are noticeably absent - such as parent and community engagement.

In Boston, the goal is for all algebra students to learn how to graph rational numbers on a number line on the same day. A few days later, the lesson will be dividing integers. Then, the students will learn how to find square roots.

Mary Corkery, the math coach at West Roxbury High School, opens a thick book and points to the lessons that algebra teachers across the district are expected to follow. "There's a very strict scope and sequence that tells us where we should be basically every day," she says.

Such consistency was not the case in the past, when decisions were left up to schools, or individual teachers. The theory is that urban children move around a lot and switch schools frequently - a factor that certainly is prevalent in Milwaukee. Therefore, it's best for every school to be on the same page. Literally.

In Milwaukee, much of Superintendent William Andrekopoulos' approach is along the same lines as Payzant's, although not quite as extreme. He, too, emphasizes consistency between classrooms, smaller high schools, professional development and standardized testing.

"The approach in the '90s was more laissez faire," Andrekopoulos said. "Now we are really zeroing down to make sure everyone is on the same page, using the same textbooks. There's more control from the district office in terms of what teaching and learning looks like."

In many respects, the Boston experience shows that the skills of a strong system leader may be markedly different from those of a strong school leader.

Consider Ed Donnelly, the assistant headmaster at West Roxbury High School, whose style is the opposite of Payzant's in some ways (even though he respects Payzant's reforms). Where Payzant is about consistency, priorities and following a system, Donnelly believes in flexibility, individuals, and creative multi-tasking.

One morning, a scruffy looking 14-year-old named Briana wanders into Donnelly's office. She has been cutting the third and sixth periods of the day, claiming that she does it to go outside and smoke a cigarette.

"I'm a good girl," Briana says.

"Yeah. You just make bad decisions," Donnelly replies. "How many are you smoking a day?"

"I'm trying to stop."

"I didn't ask you that. I asked how many you smoked a day. There's no reason to miss two whole classes a day to smoke. If I let you smoke during homeroom, would you stop skipping?"

"I don't like the teacher."

"How can you not like her? She's like Bambi. She's like a crunchy granola person."

Donnelly does some quick thinking. He remembers that Briana's older sister dropped out of high school. He senses that the 14-year-old - like many teen-agers - is short on attention span and cash.

Instead of just lecturing Briana, Donnelly considers cutting her course load, figuring that she was skipping third and sixth periods because her mind wandered after a couple of hours of classes. He also calls a friend to get her a part-time job.

"If you screw me and go out and have a cigarette, I will make your life miserable," he says, partly joking. His parting comment to the unkempt Briana: "Tie your shoes better so you don't twist an ankle."

Students flock to Donnelly. His strategy is based on bending the rules, making snap decisions, and escaping the stiffness of the orthodoxy. Some fear that's not appreciated - or welcome - in the very deliberative and structured world of systematic reform.

"I don't think (Payzant) is comfortable working out of the box," said Deborah Meier, who is famous nationally for creating strong schools in poor neighborhoods.

Until recently, Meier ran Mission Hill School in Boston, a school with more autonomy than most. She is still involved with the school, but retired from her post as co-principal.

The curriculum at Mission Hill is hands-on, distinctive and project-focused. The parents are required to volunteer at the school.

Meier said she survived in Boston because she "changed the rules." Staffers in Boston's school administration criticize her for not attending mandatory meetings. Unlike Payzant, she looks down on consensus building. "Here, we confront issues early instead of pretending we all agree," she said.

It's not just school leaders who raise questions about having such a rigid system. Some teachers feel as though Big Brother is watching over them.

"There is completely no trust in teachers when they try to make it so prescripted," said one high school teacher, who asked that her name not be used because she feared job retribution. "If they want everyone to be on the same page, they should hire robots, not teachers."

The teacher works at one of the small schools created as part of Boston's high-school reform effort. She said there is too much "teaching to the test," at the expense of finding creative ways to change students' attitudes toward education.

"Getting kids to do their homework, raising the expectations, that has not been solved by the small-school model," she said.

Payzant is undeterred. He said the standards-based movement - in which students are tested routinely to make sure they are all achieving the same set of core skills at the same time - "changed the way we think about the responsibility of public schools."

Many say that change is rooted in the changing American economy, and the pressure of the global economy. Successful occupations for dropouts don't exist in the way they used to; if urban school systems ever could afford to fail, they definitely cannot today.

"It used to be that you could have acceptable casualties in education who would not be casualties in society," Felner said. "But if you are a casualty in public education, the odds are you are not going to make it in society and democracy. The question everyone is asking: How do you re-engineer the school system to address this?"

For someone such as Meier, any re-engineering cannot be legislated from the central office, and measured by a test. But for someone like Payzant, Felner's question is guiding the course of urban education. And if teachers have a particular approach outside the norm that works well on a particular lesson, they should share it - so that it can be implemented system-wide.

Donnelly, at West Roxbury High School, describes the changes this way: "Since education started, if you had this amazing way of teaching the book `Billy Budd' by Herman Melville, no one could steal your idea. It was almost like copyright. Now, it's just the opposite. Now, you are asked to show that off. Your way of teaching is duplicated and celebrated now."

Having said that, there may be less of a home in the future for the maverick principal or the renegade school that finds success through unorthodox means. In Boston, in Milwaukee, and in more and more districts across the country, the emphasis is clearly on the whole, not the parts.

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