The change agent

With a bold plan to revamp the teacher hiring process, Boston’s interim school superintendent is doing a lot more than just keeping the seat warm

John McDonough is the interim superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. He’s the anonymous guy who is supposed to keep the school bureaucracy at 26 Court Street running smoothly until Boston’s new mayor, Marty Walsh, can orchestrate the hiring of a new superintendent. McDonough looks the part. He’s got thinning white hair and is nearing retirement at age 62. He’s been working for the Boston Public Schools for 40 years; he’s on his fourth mayor now. He started out as a temporary clerical employee in the payroll department and worked his way up to the post of chief financial officer in 1996. He’s a numbers guy, a bean counter with no teaching experience, the perfect guy to hold the fort.

John McDonough, the interim superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, outside the
central office on Court Street.

Yet McDonough is forging ahead with a bold and risky move to change the way the school system hires its teachers. Exploiting a little-used provision in the teachers’ union contract, McDonough is seeking to give every principal the power to fill job openings with whomever they want. He wants to give all school principals the same power that has been carved out for a small set of district schools and that is a mainstay of independent charter schools. McDonough, a guy who has spent his entire career in the school system’s central office, is trying to push power out to the schools. “They do the work,” he says. “I don’t do the work.”

In Boston and in many cities across the state, a hiring divide has emerged. Forty-three schools in Boston have been given autonomy over teacher hiring as part of an effort to improve student performance. Officials leading turnaround efforts at these schools are being encouraged to put the right teachers and leaders in place. According to a statewide study last summer on turnaround schools by the Institute for Strategic Leadership and Learning, a Maryland research organization, those schools that replaced more than 50 percent of their teachers in the first year had the best achievement gains. Those that had the least achievement gains had staff turnover rates of less than 35 percent.

But what few people realize is that the teacher turnover at the 43 schools with hiring autonomy in Boston causes collateral damage at the city’s 85 remaining schools. Those schools still operate under an employment system with limited hiring flexibility and are required to absorb the castoff teachers no longer wanted by the schools attempting turnarounds. McDonough says it’s not fair. “We’re increasing conditions for success for one group of schools and increasing probability for failure for another group of schools,” he says.

His new hiring policy will put all of the city’s schools on more equal footing, but it comes with enormous risk. Giving every principal the power to hire whomever they want means some of the teachers displaced each year by downsizings or turnaround efforts could be left without a teaching post. Since many of those teachers are still owed jobs under the teacher’s contract, the Boston Public Schools could end up paying them not to teach. It’s a potential budget and public relations nightmare, particularly with the average teacher’s salary in Boston topping $80,000 a year. ‘It’s a risk and it’s a significant risk,’ says McDonough. ‘There will be a significant cost up front to make this happen.’

“It’s a risk, and it’s a big risk,” the interim school superintendent says. “There will be a significant cost up front in order to make this happen.” As for teachers getting paid to do something other than teach, he says surplus educators will be placed appropriately in support jobs and continue to be evaluated regularly, meaning they could be removed if they fail to meet expectations. “So, one way or another, they’re either in and developing to be better, or they’re not in,” he says.

The Marshall school

Something didn’t add up at the John Marshall Elementary School in Boston. Only one of every 10 students at the cavernous school on Westville Street in Dorchester was proficient or better in math and English during the 2012-13 school year. Yet the Marshall’s teachers were rated above average for the Boston Public School system. School officials rated 98 percent of the Marshall’s teachers as exemplary or proficient in evaluations. Only 2 percent needed improvement and none was rated unsatisfactory. The teachers were passing with flying colors, but their students were failing.

There are many possible explanations for the Marshall’s failure—poverty and violence in the area, a rundown facility, the short school day, and on and on—but many think the school’s leadership and teachers as a group weren’t up to the task despite what the evaluations said. There are also indications that the teacher hiring process in Boston undermined efforts to turn the school around.

Boston Public School officials refused to release detailed data on teacher comings and goings at the Marshall, but some information could be gleaned from a much larger database on teacher movements developed using school department data by former city councilor and mayoral candidate John Connolly.

The John Marshall School: Only one of every 10 students was proficient or better
in math and English.

Connolly’s database shows seven teachers moving from the school system’s ominous-sounding excess pool to positions at the Marshall between 2009 and 2011. The excess pool at the Boston Public Schools is the educational equivalent of purgatory, a place where teachers with what amounts to tenure wait for a new assignment if their old job has been eliminated. Four of the seven teachers who came to the Marshall from the excess pool left turnaround schools where principals had been given greater hiring autonomy. Of the remaining three teachers, one came from a school that was closing, one arrived from the central office, and one moved in from a traditional school.

Over that same time period, nine Marshall teachers with less than three years of experience were let go because, according to the database, no position was available to them. It’s impossible to tell from the data whether one teacher’s arrival caused another teacher’s departure, but Marshall officials say they recall a handful of young, promising teachers bumped out by teachers coming from the excess pool.

“It didn’t happen a lot, but it happened enough to make a difference,” says Cynthia Tolbert Jacobs, who worked 13 years at the Marshall as assistant principal and for a brief time as acting principal. She is currently the principal of the Ellis Elementary School in Roxbury.

Jacobs says teachers coming in from the excess pool often wouldn’t even sit down for an interview with the principal. “You would just look up and here was a person coming in to take a job,” she says. It wasn’t an ideal situation, she says. “You as a principal know what your vision is and you want to get someone who agrees with that vision.”

The size of the excess pool varies from year to year, but school officials expect it to stabilize at more than 300 teachers over the coming years as struggling schools continue to be placed in the hands of new managers who are given full hiring autonomy. Some of the teachers in the excess pool are good and get snapped up quickly by other schools. But others are treated like they are radioactive: No one wants to touch them. A 2010 study on Boston teachers by the National Council on Teacher Quality summarized the situation in stark terms: “Undesired teachers are routinely excessed and passed onto other schools rather than fired, a practice known as the ‘dance of the lemons.’”

The choreography of the lemon dance is complicated, according to teachers, principals, and administrators. It begins with principals, who try to avoid hiring lemons by putting off job postings as long as they can or by making their openings sound as unappealing as possible. The lemons, meanwhile, use their seniority to secure a spot they covet at another school, sometimes at the expense of a young teacher with less experience.

All of these dance moves take a long time to execute, which means Boston’s hiring process tends to drag on and on. Most schools do their hiring in the winter and early spring, so teachers can prepare during the summer for the start of school in the fall. But in Boston only 8 percent of job openings for the next school year are filled before school lets out in June, the time when the best teacher candidates are on the market. Two-thirds of Boston hires are made in August and September, when the market for teachers is thin and there is less time to prepare for the start of school.

The delay in hiring also means younger teachers without tenure face tremendous uncertainty because they don’t know if they are going to hold on to their job or be bumped aside at the last minute by someone with tenure. Jacobs said one promising young teacher at the Marshall left to take a job outside of teaching because she couldn’t run the risk of being left without a job.

Caroline Corcoran, a fourth and fifth grade reading teacher at the Kenny Elementary School in Dorchester, says the uncertainty for young teachers is a big problem. She landed her job a week before school started five years ago and she didn’t learn she was rehired for a second year until mid-August the following year.

“I had no plan B if I didn’t get a job my second year,” she says. “My plan B was to default on student loans because there was no other financially feasible option. That can’t be the case. We can’t demand the world of all our teachers, but then refuse to hire back certain ones, regardless of their quality of work, just because they haven’t been teaching long enough. The career doesn’t sound very appealing when you have massive student loans, as so many people of my generation do, and you know you can’t be assured a job for the next three years.”

Unlocking Potential

Boston school officials decided to start over at the Marshall last fall. They brought in a nonprofit Boston organization called Unlocking Potential—UP for short—and gave the group’s leaders the autonomy to hire, spend, and teach pretty much however they wanted. UP immediately dismissed all of the school’s 94 employees. The organization lengthened the school day by two hours and extended the teachers’ work year by a month. Students were required to wear uniforms and abide by a strict system of discipline. The inside of the school was painted for the first time in 11 years and the front entrance of the building was redone.

Renamed UP Academy Dorchester, the inside of the school is now bright and cheery, decorated with colorful posters and inspirational messages. Students are active, engaged, and learning. The teachers are young and full of enthusiasm, routinely working 10 to12 hour days. Everyone in the school seems to be on the same page. A popular poster inside many of the rooms reads in part: “If I work hard at it, I will be what I want to be.”

“I believe that autonomy is a prerequisite for vast school improvement,”
says Scott Given, CEO of Unlocking Potential.

UP, which has run turnarounds at three other schools, forecasts that in four years three of every four students at the Marshall will be proficient in math and English. In 10 years, the organization expects to complete the turnaround of the school, with nine of every 10 students proficient or better. It’s the sort of academic progress that has parents, teachers, and administrators salivating for more.

Scott Given, the 33-year-old CEO of Unlocking Potential, who developed the business plan for the company while attending Harvard Business School, says his organization wouldn’t even be doing business in Massachusetts if the Legislature hadn’t passed a law giving people like him the autonomy to hire whoever he wants.

“I believe that autonomy is a prerequisite for vast school improvement. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it’s absolutely a prerequisite,” he says. “If you have just one adult in a building who is not strongly aligned to the goals of the school, that is going to create really significant challenges.”

Lana Ewing, the superintendent of UP Dorchester, says UP received 4,000 applications—about half from people in Massachusetts and half from people around the country—for jobs at the Marshall. She ultimately hired 58 teachers and 25 other staffers. She says 37 percent of the teachers are people of color. The student body is 99 percent black and Hispanic.

Only five of the former Marshall employees applied for jobs with UP. Two of them, a teacher and the office manager, received posts. A third person who worked at the Marshall for an outside contractor was also hired as a teacher. Several parents and school officials say most of the former Marshall employees chose not to apply for jobs at UP because they were unwilling to work longer days and a longer year with no increase in pay. Of the 48 Marshall teachers who did not land a job at UP, 40 ended up in the excess pool and eventually landed at another Boston school, three won approval for long-term leaves, and five left teaching.

What everyone notices about UP’s new teaching staff is how young they are. Ten of them are first-year teachers; the most experienced teacher has been in the profession nine years. Theresa Johnson, the 47-year-old office manager at the Marshall who is now handling those same duties for UP, said the age transformation at the school has been incredible. “Last year I felt like the youngest person there,” she says. “This year, I feel like I’m one of the oldest.”

Teachers work 10-12 hour days at UP Academy Dorchester. Students
seem to be engaged.

Ewing says the move toward younger, less experienced teachers was not by design. “It’s just the way it turned out,” she says. But by going young, UP was able to hire nine more teachers than the Marshall had and still have a smaller payroll. Like the Marshall teachers, the UP teachers are members of the Boston Teachers Union. But because UP teachers have fewer years in service, their salaries are lower. The average teacher salary at UP is $63,000 while the average teacher working for the Boston Public Schools earns $83,000.

The larger teaching staff at UP is also instructing about 100 fewer students, since enrollment fell from 688 to 581 with the transition from the Marshall to UP. Several parents with children at UP say they were initially concerned by all the changes in staff and rules, but now are pleased with what’s going on. Anthony Dabney says he has seen a noticeable change in his son, who is in the fourth grade. “He dislikes the discipline,” Dabney says, “but I do see a difference in the learning. I see a lot of growth in my son. He really wants to do well.”

Maytee Pena, who has a son and daughter at the school, says the departure of so many teachers concerned her. But she says the emphasis on discipline is making a difference and the teachers are doing a good job. “They’re very young and they have lots of energy,” she says.

One of the young, new teachers is 24-year-old Alison Crawford, who attended a private Quaker high school and then went on to Haverford College just outside Philadelphia, where she grew up. After graduating, she was accepted into Teach for America, a two-year national teacher corps program for recent college grads, and was assigned to teach 10th-grade English at a high school in inner-city Baltimore. She spent two years there before hearing from a friend that UP was hiring teachers for an elementary school in Boston.

Crawford liked her Baltimore school and its principal, but she was open to a move. She says most of her tenth graders were already lagging too far behind to have a chance at getting into college, so she wanted to teach children who were younger. She also felt as if only a portion of the Baltimore school’s teachers were on board with the principal’s philosophy. “They were very resistant to his attempts to change the school culture,” she says of some of the teachers. “Even one or two not on board can really throw things off.”

What everyone notices about UP Academy Dorchester is how young the teachers are. UP appealed to her because of its emphasis on teacher development and the concept of a turnaround in place, the idea of moving into an existing city school and educating the same students who had been struggling under the previous leadership. Crawford says UP’s interview process was grueling but rewarding. She says she got more out of a phone review by an UP official of one of her Baltimore teaching tapes than she ever did from officials at the Baltimore school.

Crawford says 18 of the 20 students in her second-grade class weren’t prepared to do second grade work, so she spent the first few months just preparing them to learn, teaching them to sit in place and pay attention. She also focused on the school’s core values of teamwork, integrity, grit, engagement, and respect. She says she worked 10 to 12 hour days in Baltimore and is continuing that schedule in Dorchester, but the difference is that every teacher is working at that level in Dorchester. “The mindset is whatever it takes,” she says. “For a teacher, this is about as good as it gets. It’s an opportunity to change people’s lives.”

The interim superintendent

There’s a lot of buzz about John McDonough’s hiring autonomy initiative in the educational community. Everyone wants to know how McDonough is going to pull it off and how it’s going to work.

He is using a fairly obscure provision in the teachers’ contract that lets a principal hire whoever he or she wants to fill an opening as long as the new teacher is paid a $1,250 stipend. The stipend provision was intended to give school officials a little more leverage in hiring hard-to-find science and special ed teachers, but McDonough is going to make it standard procedure for every hire.

McDonough describes his new policy as “bounded autonomy.” Principals will be given hiring freedom only if they comply with three requirements: perform annual evaluations of their existing teachers, pursue diversity hiring goals, and complete all their hiring within a six-week period.

McDonough knows there will be teachers left in the excess pool this spring who are owed jobs but unable to find them. He doesn’t know how many there will be, but is emphatic on one point: “Boston will not have a rubber room.”

The reference to a rubber room may mean nothing to people outside education circles, but inside those circles it is shorthand for waste and dysfunction in New York City schools. Rubber rooms became infamous following a 2009 article in the New Yorker that described them as administrative offices where unwanted teachers were required to report each work day to, for all intents and purposes, do nothing. The article described teachers playing board games, doing crossword puzzles, or just trying to catch a nap.

McDonough is clear there will be no rubber rooms in Boston but is vague about what will happen to Boston’s unwanted teachers. He says they will be assigned useful work. “We’re a labor intensive organization,” he says. “There are tons of uses for valuable employees in a whole bunch of areas.”

Richard Stutman, the president of the Boston Teachers Union, initially downplayed McDonough’s hiring autonomy initiative when it was first announced, saying there are plenty of teaching jobs to go around. But in December he filed a grievance over the new hiring policy, saying the $1,250 stipend was supposed to be used on a limited basis. Making the stipend standard operating procedure will waste a lot of money, he says.

Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which has advocated in the past for hiring autonomy, applauds McDonough’s decision and says it is an acknowledgement that teachers matter to a school’s success. “Our position is, if it’s good for low-performing schools, why isn’t it good for all schools?” she says.

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, says hiring autonomy is on every superintendent’s wish list. “The climate today is accountability, accountability, accountability,” he says. “You want to make sure you have the right people in the right seats on the bus.”

John Connolly, who campaigned to be the education mayor, says he is a big believer in McDonough. “John was often the only high-level voice of reason inside BPS,” Connolly wrote in a December email while away on a post-campaign vacation. “He wants to do the right things and he knows BPS inside out. If John is given the backing, he won’t hesitate to clean house and make critical changes that really should happen before the next superintendent is hired. That said, I am always wary of BPS statements about changes to teacher hiring and placement rules, timelines, and policy. There is so much off-the-radar deal making and just plain skirting of the rules behind the scenes that undermine supposed changes. In sum, I won’t believe anything has changed until I see it actually happening.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

McDonough knows everyone is watching him closely, but he doesn’t seem nervous. He says he has briefed incoming Mayor Marty Walsh twice on school issues, including the new hiring policy. So far, he says, no one has told him to start acting more like an interim superintendent.

“Shame on us if we wait for things to change for the better, because we have 57,000-plus students who are in our schools today,” he says. “They don’t care about the noise outside. They don’t care about the anxiety levels of adults. Our obligation is to ensure their success.”