Boston school chief says educational reforms 'guarantee' success

Robert R. Spillane says that everyone should get a report card. As superintendent of Boston schools, he is responsible to see that they go out to the system's 55,000 students every two months.

Now, he says, it's time he received one himself. After 21/2 years of supervising one of the nation's most tumultuous school systems, he doesn't give himself a letter grade. But it's clear he thinks his marks should be very high.

There are others who agree. But here in the city with the nation's oldest public school system some believe Dr. Spillane's highest marks should come for his ''smooth talking.''

Mr. Spillane is Boston's eighth superintendent in nine years. A former superintendent of various New York suburban school systems, he was the first ''outsider'' to come to the Boston job in more than 90 years. Few expected him to last.

When he arrived in August 1981, he says, the school system was in total disarray. It was (and still is) strictly controlled by a court-ordered desegregation plan. It was over budget anywhere from $10 million to $50 million - no one knew how much, he says. And although the enrollment had fallen by 38, 000 students over eight years, the number of teachers and administrators on the payroll had grown.

The teachers' contract limited the superintendent's control over the teachers. No one even knew how many teachers there were.

Since that time there have been many changes. Spillane says he has reorganized the school department. He says he brought the budget under control, instituted broad personnel policies, and laid off 1,800 teachers in his first few months.

William Spring, president of the Boston Private Industry Council, says that the schools have come a long way since Dr. Spillane arrived. The school department's house is finally in order, he says. And Mr. Spring says Spillane has managed to give the school system a measure of credibility among both city businessmen and politicians.

But beyond these policy victories, Spillane says his top priority has always been educational progress. He instituted systemwide curriculum objectives last year - something he says the schools have been lacking for years.

These objectives, coupled with a comprehensive testing program, and established standards for promotion and graduation, will ''guarantee'' educational success, Spillane says. He projects reading test scores will rise dramatically this year as a result of the new curriculum objectives.

Has public education in Boston improved? ''Not yet,'' says Ellen Guiney, director of the City-Wide Education Coalition. The schools were down so far, she says, there's still much ground to be made up.

Ms. Guiney faults Dr. Spillane for being ''wildly optimistic. Achievement will not dramatically improve,'' she says. ''It just takes too much time for that.''

Joseph W. Caspar, a member of the Boston School Committee, says that Spillane is a ''classic administrator,'' and classes him a ''smooth talker.'' Mr. Caspar says that, indeed, Spillane has given credibility to a floundering system. But, he says, the superintendent is a ''numbers, facts, and figures person, and is not into students.''

Caspar suggests that Spillane should spend more time in the trenches, visiting schools and confronting problems, rather than spending his time in an ivory tower, trying to delegate authority and hold his staff accountable for progress.

Yet the accountability Spillane seeks is something that most people agree is vital if Boston's schools are to improve.

Spillane recently won a contract fight with the Boston Teachers Union over ''management rights.'' The new contract gives principals the power to select teachers for their schools, and evaluate them more broadly. In the past, principals had little say in selecting and rating teachers.

In turn, Spillane has removed or reassigned 40 percent of the principals, and he says he will hold them personally responsible for the progress of their schools.

Abigail Browne, a member of the Boston School Committee, says that Spillane's policies are ''educationally sound,'' and are ''beginning to be felt.'' But, she says, the greatest impact will come from holding people accountable to do their jobs.

John D. O'Bryant, a member of the Boston School Committee, says Spillane is ''putting teachers and administrators on notice that if they do not perform, they will be dismissed.'' Forty teachers have been dismissed since Spillane's arrival, says Mr. O'Bryant, and that's something that hasn't happened in years. ''It's a breath of fresh air,'' he adds.

And O'Bryant says that Spillane is not just a smooth talker. In the past he has questioned Spillane's sensitivity to minorities.

Yet now he says that the superintendent has ''improved in terms of his impulsiveness and brash statements. He's really matured in this.''

But Ms. Guiney cautions that in addition to seeking accountability, there need to be more support mechanisms to help teachers, and a willingness to retrain them where necessary. Teachers, principals, and the superintendent must work together to ensure the educational objectives, she says, and Spillane's ''program hasn't been sold enough.''

The schools and the superintendent still face serious problems.

Only about one-half of the students entering ninth grade stay to graduate. On any given day, as many as 20 percent of the students may be truant. And concerned Bostonians are looking for ways to control violence in the schools.

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