Lessons from a city school superintendent

Thomas Payzant retired Friday after 11 years as superintendent of Boston's public schools, an unusually long tenure for leaders of American urban school districts.

This will be his first summer off work since he was 13, he says. But he's not waltzing away after a career in which he oversaw five districts and served under President Clinton as an assistant secretary of education. He'll be back in September – this time across the river in Cambridge as a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

When Dr. Payzant took the helm in his hometown of Boston, his goal was to improve the whole school system, not simply create pockets of success. His experiences – and suggestions for the future – offer a glimpse into the sustained momentum required to make progress in urban districts.

With the support of Mayor Thomas Menino and Boston's appointed School Committee, Payzant's blueprint included new curricula and an assessment system to give teachers detailed data so they could see what works well. He infused the district with professional development opportunities, including coaching for teachers and principals. And he has converted the city's large high schools into smaller learning communities.

During Payzant's tenure, math and reading scores have risen for high schoolers in all racial and ethnic groups. Yet gaps between some groups remain, something to be tackled by his predecessor.

Payzant took some time out from packing up his office last week to talk with the Monitor. Excerpts follow:

What can a child entering the school system expect that he or she wouldn't have found 10 years ago?

Let's start with preschool and early-childhood education. One of the first major policy recommendations I made to the School Committee ... was a full-school-day program for 5-year-olds. By the 2009-10 school year, every 4-year-old should have [that] opportunity. And that's important because in urban school districts, often the achievement gap is evident ... in kindergarten.

What will it take to close achievement gaps in urban districts?

There has to be willingness to have the tough conversation about what the gap is and why it exists. And to stop the finger pointing. The educators shouldn't be pointing fingers at the parents and the parents at the educators. We share responsibility, and that partnership is essential.

[Leaders must provide] teachers with the kind of support that they need to understand the wonderful diversity that we have in urban school districts, and [to develop] ... various approaches to teaching and learning that will reach a very diverse group of children.

We have to address what is an increasing number of English-language learners in urban school districts like Boston. Helping children become proficient in English is a key to their becoming proficient in the various subjects that we want them to learn.

Why have you put so much emphasis on a collaborative approach to professional development?

One of the realities of the way that schools are organized in America ... [has been] the assumption that you find the best teacher you can, provide the teacher with a classroom and materials, and say, "Go in, close the door, and do the best you can with your children."

[We are] breaking down that structural isolation by creating periods of common planning time for groups of teachers; providing coaches who can work with them around issues of instruction and curriculum; and getting them to use data as a means of reflecting on what's working. When that's done well, the feedback we have from teachers is that it's the most powerful professional development they've had.

What insights have you gained from your efforts to turn Boston's large high schools into smaller schools?

Small is beautiful only if you ... take advantage of [it] ... to have the informed conversations about ... what it will take to get all students to higher standards.

It's going to take several years to get people comfortable with [the restructuring we've done]. I do believe that if that effort is successful, we will begin to see lower dropout rates and more students being successful in ... continuing their education beyond high school, which really is the ticket to opportunity in this day and age.

What aspects of the federal No Child Left Behind law have been helpful or problematic?

The underlying policy direction is on target. That notion of getting all students to a much higher standard, which we used to expect only of a select few, is what is necessary to give students real opportunity.

The requirement that data be reported by subgroups – by race, by free and reduced-price lunch, [etc.] – that's very important and tremendously useful ... in understanding the achievement gap and having strategies for closing it.

The focus on having highly qualified teachers for all students is a very important policy direction. [But the way it's measured should include] what goes on in the classroom.

[Another] problem is that if you don't make "adequate yearly progress" [for one subgroup of students], you get the same "did not meet AYP" label as if you do not meet it [for many subgroups]. It makes it very difficult to help parents understand what these labels really mean.

If you could get everyone to go along with one radical proposal for change in the school system, what would it be?

Frankly, while it's a huge cost, I think that there has got to be more time built into the work year for teachers, and the school year for children ... [with] targeted, good use of the time. I'm always struck by the international comparisons. Many of those countries that do better than we do have an eight-hour school day. It's not a radical idea, but ... it would make a huge difference in terms of the opportunities students have to meet much higher standards.

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