An equity to-do list for Boston’s new school superintendent

An open letter to Brenda Cassellius outlines district’s needs

Dear Dr. Cassellius,

Welcome to Boston!

You will find a city eager to be able to trust and believe its school leaders. You will also find a city divided racially, ethnically, and economically, a city and a school system of haves and have-nots.

Meet the Author

Lisa Guisbond

Analyst, FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing
We urge you to take strong action to dismantle inequities in the schools. They include:

  • Every school should provide a quality education.
    Some schools have full-time nurses, art and music teachers, high-level academic programs, and other features of a high-quality education. Others do not. This is in large part due to a budgeting system that ties school budgets too closely to enrollment numbers. We urge you to propose to the School Committee a basic set of offerings and services that a Boston student will be able to find at any school.
  • The schools need more state money.
    A quality education for all students will require more funding. This year, public education organizations are making a determined effort to get the Legislature to fulfill its constitutional duty to “cherish” education, and we hope that effort will have born fruit by the time the next school year begins. Even before you become superintendent, we hope you will join this effort.
  • The city can also contribute more.
    Boston is a booming city and can afford a first-rate education for all its children. Giant nonprofit organizations including major universities have been asked to chip in just one quarter of what they would be taxed if they were not non-profits, and some of the biggest are not paying even that much. Raising revenue in the city is not your department, but you can help by having your budgeting staff cost out what it would take to provide quality schooling for every student.
  • The student assignment system does not work well.
    The complex BPS student assignment system was changed several years ago to provide access for more students to “quality schools close to home.” A study released last year showed that it failed to do that and did increase racial segregation. We hope you will reopen the discussion of this thorny issue and start by asking parents of all racial, ethnic, and economic groups about their experience with the current system.
  • BuildBPS should be transparent and should advance equity.
    The city has begun a major, 10-year-plus construction program, but only the outlines have been released to the public. Make the whole plan public, including a timeline, even if the current draft includes decision points that have not yet been reached. Parents should have answers to these basic questions:
    What are the long-term plans for the schools of my children and the children across our city?
    How will the BuildBPS affect current students and communities?
    Then, engage the community in a serious discussion of alternatives.
  • Exam schools should reflect the BPS student population.
    Boston’s exam schools admit disproportionate numbers of students who are white or Asian, and students who are middle and upper class, disproportionately fewer black, Latinx, and low-income students, and even fewer English learner and special education students. The NAACP, Lawyers for Civil Rights, and other organizations have been studying this problem for years and have some proposals, which we hope you will bring forward for further discussion and action.
  • Immigrants to Boston need more than welcoming words.                                                                                                                                                                                                                               They need an education that will enable them to prosper and make their full contribution to their community. For a start, Boston school police must stop sending routine discipline reports to federal law enforcement, including ICE. English learners with disabilities need special education in their own languages. BPS should reach out to older English learners to let them know they can stay in school past their 22nd birthdays if they need the time to master English and content courses and earn a high school diploma.
  • Boston needs more black and Latinx teachers.
    Teacher diversity is a big problem in Boston, as it is across the country. You have said you want to talk with staff about what has worked and what has not worked. Please get together with teachers of color in the system and find out from them how to recruit and — just as important — how to retain more of them.
  • Less testing (and test prep), more learning.
    You can’t single-handedly change the state’s unfair, test-score-based accountability system. But you can make it clear to Boston teachers and school leaders that no decisions should be made about individuals on the basis of a standardized test score and that you want them to give students the best all-around education they can, not to waste students’ time with test prep. You can also support and expand BPS’s participation in the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA), which is working to develop fair and authentic ways of assessing student learning and school quality that better reflect what students, educators, and community members most value in our schools.
Citizens for Public Schools will be excited to support you in tackling the barriers to equity and giving every student a quality education.

Lisa Guisbond is executive director of Citizens for Public Schools.