A few thoughts on the new Boston school superintendent

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Recently on Greater Boston, when asked his appraisal of the final candidates for Boston superintendent, former state education secretary Paul Reville sniffed that it was a weak lot.  I don’t often agree with Paul, given that under his leadership Massachusetts went from among the fastest improving states on the Nation’s Report Card to stagnant (and declining in early grade reading), the state ditched the US History MCAS graduation requirement, he and the commissioner politicized what was a pretty objective charter school approval process… I could go on but in the great Greek tradition of “let bygones be bygones,” I feel like after you get a few digs in, you must leave more for another day.

Reville was right on the pool of candidates for Boston superintendent with one possible exception – the person who was chosen, Tommy Chang.

I say possibly, because it is to be seen.  Chang could be a standout candidate, but we will have to see how he addresses several key issues in the short term to know either way.  All that said, three things we know about Chang give good reason for cautious optimism.

  • He comes with a “useful” charter background.  That is, he worked in a charter school within Los Angeles’ Green Dot charter system.  Green Dot, established by former Democratic Party activist, Rock the Vote social entrepreneur and TV producer Steve Barr, runs a couple of dozen unionized charter schools in LA.  Unionized charter schools, which are usually referred to as Horace Mann or in-district charters schools, are not controversial in Massachusetts.  They enjoy much closer ties to the superintendent’s office and have some additional flexibility; unfortunately, they do not produce the kind of student achievement that we see in the non-unionized commonwealth charter schools.  Chang’s background with Green Dot schools means that he will understand the need to give Horace Mann and other in-district charters more flexibility.  Perhaps it will also give him a useful perspective on those parents who seek out options for their children.
  • His likely understanding of the need for flexibility for schools and options for parents will be aided by his work as a principal in the Green Dot system.  Anybody who has served as a school principal has firsthand experience with the often senseless mandates that come from superintendents, and state and federal education agencies.  It’s not unreasonable to expect that his experience as a principal will make him a kindred spirit to Jeff Riley, who is serving as the superintendent/receiver in Lawrence, and who has insisted that he is managing a system of individual schools not a monolithic school system.  With that worldview, Chang will likely give Boston’s principals more flexibility to run their schools and have the central office play a support role.
  • More recently, Chang served as an area instructional superintendent at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Intensive Support and Innovation Center.  In that role, he oversaw 130 schools, slightly more than are in the Boston Public system.  Again, that experience is similar to the background of Jeff Riley, who moved from leading innovation in Boston to taking the helm of the Lawrence Public Schools.

Chang also has a number of obstacles he will be facing.  To overcome those obstacles, he might want to study three things that Riley has done to improve schools in Lawrence.

First and foremost, Chang will need to reshape the central office on Court Street and not allow it to define his tenure.  The Boston School Department usually takes superintendents and bends them to their bureaucratic practices.  In Lawrence, Riley focused early on making it clear that the central office’s role was a supportive not a micromanaging one.  He cut central staff by a quarter and reinvested the savings directly in the schools.  It was an important signal that the schools mattered more than bureaucratic business as usual.  Second, Chang will not only have to talk about decentralizing authority, but do it.  If he wants to recruit (and retain) high-quality school leaders, he will need to demonstrate every day that they will not get engulfed in the usual superintendent’s tendency to impose one-size-fits-all solutions on the system.  And, third, he might want to study the intensive acceleration weeks Riley has made available for students in order to raise their level of learning in math.  It is proving to be a powerful action to raise achievement levels.

Chang will of course face some challenges that are unique to Boston.  He must rush in to solve the screwed-up lunch service mess.  That will take negotiating with the feds, undoing the decision to provide universal lunch and a more flexible food selection and management process that takes into consideration input from the schools.  And he will have to develop a strong relationship with the mayor and community leaders.  There is no way to take on huge issues like the turnaround of Madison Park without strong relationships.  These two issues are big tests for Chang, because they relate to his Achilles’ heel.  He is an outsider, and in Boston – well, enough said.

Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, visit Pioneer’s website, or check out our education posts at the Rock The Schoolhouse blog.