'Power to the Schools' Is Credo of Boston's New Chief
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Still, Payzant insists his school-based approach to reform can bring up test scores and graduate more college-bound students. The key, he says, lies in flexibility and accountability. Payzant sees himself and the central office as the support team - not the command center - for the schools, allowing them the freedom to implement their own policies. But educational control at the school level - an innovation for which Payzant received national attention when he was San Diego's superintendent - is effective only if school principals are held accountable.Skip to next paragraph
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Thus, one of Payzant's first moves was to evaluate all school principals by asking each to write a 500-word statement outlining how to improve his or her school, gathering feedback from parents, and looking at data such as attendance rates and test scores. Last month he announced that six principals will be transferred next year, causing an outcry by some students and parents.
Another of Payzant's top priorities: devising the first citywide academic standards the district has seen in a quarter-century. After a months-long process of drafting curriculum targets and taking parent and teacher feedback, Payzant plans to unveil his standards this month.
No stranger to the perils of running a school system, Payzant can also draw on his New England upbringing as he weathers Boston's educational winds. He grew up in Quincy, Mass., a middle-class suburb of Boston, spent his undergrad years at Williams College in western Massachusetts, and received his advanced teaching degrees from Harvard.
He was still a young man when he became superintendent of a suburban Pennsylvania district. He used that position as a springboard to the school superintendent's job in Eugene, Ore., then Oklahoma City, then San Diego. Payzant served 11 years as head of the San Diego district, a tenure that made him one of the longest-serving superintendents in the country. He spent the two years before coming to Boston at the US Department of Education as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.
Along the way, he learned the power of politics, the art of balancing special-interest groups, and the value of listening. In Eugene, Payzant was unsuccessfully sued by four well-connected principals that he transferred without public hearings. In Oklahoma City, the end of Payzant's tenure was spent in messy contract negotiations with the teachers union. And in San Diego, a strong-arm style of imposing standards and mandating a citywide plan for meeting them soon gave way to a school system where participation by all was the norm. "He grew considerably during the time that he was here," says Bill Crane of the San Diego Teacher's Association.
Despite the struggles during Payzant's superintendency in San Diego, Mr. Crane says the school district benefited from his push to hire women and minorities, his emphasis on attracting grant money, and his calming influence. "He had almost a Zen-like quality of being rational and rather dispassionate when surrounded by emotionality," Mr. Crane says.
Payzant's educational philosophy is an outgrowth of his 30 years in the classroom, principal's office, and halls of local and federal power. He says he knows it's hard for people to believe in change unless they trust their reformer to stick around. But he says the public longs for a successful school system and is willing to help out if a superintendent articulates how.
"People are interested and eager to see it happen and get some answers," Payzant says. "You've got to start by making sure that people don't give up hope."
* Previous articles in this series ran April 30 and June 11.