Chang takes charge
Boston’s new superintendent talks testing and charters, says he’ll be working 12 to 14 hour days – and reveals that, for now at least, his family plans to remain in Los Angeles.
TOMMY CHANG HIT the ground when he became Boston’s new school superintendent on July 1, and it’s no wonder. Not only did the former Los Angeles school administrator bring lots of energy and ideas to his new position, he had the benefit of four months in Boston getting his bearings. Chang arrived in March, and spent that time quietly learning the school system and the city while veteran Boston school administrator John McDonough, who served as interim superintendent for nearly two years, was still running the district.
But Chang now holds the reins, and he’s beginning to make his mark. He is remaking the structure of the district’s central office to put a clear focus on supporting teaching and instruction in schools. He is committed to the idea of giving schools more autonomy over everything from hiring to curriculum and budgeting – but he says that autonomy has to come with “guardrails” and accountability for results.
He is a big believer in the need for a team-based approach to the huge challenges facing an urban district like Boston’s, where more than half of all students are still not reaching proficiency in math and English. His enthusiasm for a more collaborative approach in education is such that he sits down for a half-hour interview with a handout that he shares on the topic – a New Yorker piece by the Boston-based surgeon Atul Gawande. In the article, “Cowboys and Pit Crews,” Gawande describes why health care today needs fewer go-it-alone cowboys and more team-oriented pit crews to deal with the incredible complexities of modern medicine. Chang says the same is true in education.
In an interview shortly after Chang was selected in early March, Mayor Marty Walsh said he was the right guy to help bridge the divide between district and charter schools. Chang served as principal of a Los Angeles charter school for six years and as policy director at the California state charter school association. But he also taught for nearly six years at a district high school in gritty Compton, south of LA. Most recently, he was a deputy superintendent in the Los Angeles district, in charge of trying to drive improvement among a group of 130 low-performing schools.
He says that decision in no way diminishes his level of commitment to the new job. “I am in this for the long haul and will never waver in carrying out my mission of making the public schools in this great city the best in the nation,” he says.
I sat down with Chang in his office at the school department’s new Roxbury headquarters on his second official day on the job. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation, plus responses to a couple of follow-up questions by email.
COMMONWEALTH: You’ve been in an unusual position. Yesterday was your first official day as superintendent, but you’ve actually been here for several months, more quietly taking in the lay of the land. You’ve put together a 100-day plan to hit the ground running. What are the outlines of that plan?
TOMMY CHANG: I would say first of all it’s been amazing just to have an opportunity to come in early. Rarely is a superintendent able to do something like this. The 100-day plan is going to be an outline of some key projects that we want accomplished in the first 100 days and, more importantly, foreshadow some of the work that we want to do long term in Boston over the next three to five years.
Some broad themes are: projects around equity and how we increase opportunity for all students; projects around how we truly innovate in terms of teaching and learning; projects around how we ensure that there is high quality choice of schools in every single neighborhood; and how we create a culture of “we” in Boston public schools. What I have seen across the board is there is a lot of great work occurring throughout the city, amazing bright spots. But how do we bring this work together so we are actually learning from each other? And the last one would be projects around empowerment of schools, but coupling empowerment with high accountability.
CW: This issue of school empowerment, or autonomy, has been a big theme in education discussions nationally and in Boston, and it’s something you have spoken a lot about, including in your interviews for the superintendent’s post. What does that idea of school-level autonomy mean to you and how different is it from how large districts have operated traditionally?
CHANG: I believe the unit of true change happens at the school site. It begins with the school site headmaster or principal, and a team of people, including teachers, parents, students. Now if we believe that the unit of change should be at the school site, then those individuals at the school site should be empowered to make the most important decisions – curriculum and instruction, assessment, hiring, resources, budget, so on and so forth. They should have that choice. However, many school systems, and many large systems, have a very difficult time pushing down empowerment and decision-making because a lot of the policies don’t actually allow and support that level of work. So it’s our job to understand how we actually push those autonomies into schools. Now with great powers also come great responsibilities. So what are going to be the collective 12 to 15 key data metrics that we are all going to be accountable for as an entire school system? Right now in Boston a lot schools have massive amounts of autonomy, whether they believe it or not. However, we don’t have a common set of accountabilities, and we need to get there. Let me also add that it’s important to have autonomies, but with particular guardrails. Guardrails are there to ensure that every single youth has opportunity to achieve. If you say that schools have autonomy over graduation requirements, that doesn’t set a standard appropriate bar for all kids.
CW: Boston students still lag significantly behind their peers statewide, and there is a huge achievement gap separating black and Hispanic students from their white and Asian counterparts in the district and across the state. What is your broad theory of change for how urban districts can make more than incremental progress in closing this divide and raising achievement levels district wide?
CHANG: Closing the opportunity gap for all students is a chief priority of mine, and I and my leadership team will work tirelessly to see this happen. I believe it is key that principals and their leaders are given the tools and the autonomy to improve instruction and student outcomes, and should be held accountable when this does not occur. We need to ensure that all students are consistently engaged in cognitively demanding tasks that are aligned with the standards across the district, from within every classroom and every school.
CW: There’s been a lot of talk nationally as well as locally about testing, with some people, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association president, saying we should have a moratorium on high-stakes testing. What’s your take on the role of testing and accountability. Has it gone too far?
CHANG: We have to assess and we have to monitor student progress. There’s no way around it. But there are other ways of measuring progress than testing students with multiple-choice exams. There are better ways. There is opportunity right now, as we try to make a shift to the Common Core, to determine what is the appropriate type of assessment. For Common Core, where multiple-choice assessments aren’t going to help us measure whether students are meeting proficiency, we’re going to need to look at more performance tests. We need to look at authentic assessments. We need to look at student writing. We need to look at student discussions.
CW: Some people say the PARCC assessment [now being piloted in some Massachusetts districts] goes a long way toward capturing more of the deeper critical thinking skills and things that people might want to have assessments aligned with. Do you feel that way?
CHANG: There are two national consortiums [that have developed assessments aligned with Common Core]. The Commonwealth is a PARCC state. Other states are using [an assessment called] Smarter Balanced. Both consortiums are trying to figure this out. I think there’s still a lot of room for improvement. There is still, in my opinion, a bit of over-dependency on multiple choice. But at least multiple-choice assessments are only part of the assessments now.
CW: What about the idea of just throwing high-stakes testing overboard?
CHANG: The vast majority of educators I talk to don’t think that’s a good idea. We have to be able to measure for success somehow. But if we are spending weeks and weeks, quote-unquote, testing students, I don’t think that’s valuable either. Let me add one thing. High quality teaching and learning integrates assessments as part of the learning process. So they’re assessments for learning, not assessments of learning. You don’t stop the learning process and test. You create assessments that allow the students to continue learning.
CW: When people talk about school-based autonomy, in a lot of ways that looks similar to the way charter schools are structured, where the schools themselves are the unit of change and have autonomy over hiring and curriculum and a lot of things. Given that you have a background both in the charter school world and in traditional district schools, what do you take from your charter school experience that you think districts can learn from?
CHANG: The lines between charters and districts schools are being more and more blurred. The issue around autonomy is, I think, quite blurred. There are charter school organizations that don’t necessarily espouse high levels of autonomy. There are networks of charter schools that are very deliberate about consistency with curriculum and instruction. They train teachers to work with very precise methodology when it comes to pedagogy. And they’re very precise about what is being taught at certain times of the day. There are district schools that do that as well. Now on the flip side of it, there are charter schools that give great levels of autonomy to schools and school sites to make curriculum decisions. There are district schools that do that as well. I don’t think things are as clear-cut as people think they are.
CW: In terms of the charter-district divide, in Boston there was a compact signed a few years ago between the district and charter schools to promote the idea of working more collaboratively. How do you view the ecosystem of schools in Boston?
CHANG: I hope it doesn’t become a competition thing because I think competition only drives improvement up to a certain level. I actually wrote my dissertation about charter schools and district schools and their relationships in regard to serving students with special needs in Los Angeles. My conclusions were that competition wasn’t the driving the force for improvement. It was actually collaboration. When you create systems of collaboration you actually saw more students with special needs served by charter schools. You saw sharing of best practices across both sectors. And adults came around to actually look at that data together. Very powerful work. So for me, in the context of Boston, we need to provide high quality choice to parents. My job as the superintendent of Boston is to ensure that Boston Public Schools are improving every single year, and we’re providing better and better service to the youth and parents. Parents are the ones that ultimately make choices for where their kids go.
CW: In terms of sharing of best practices, some people say that was originally the idea behind charters and that they haven’t lived up to it. By another reckoning, a lot of the things charters have modeled have been things that district reforms have grabbed on to – things like longer school days, greater school-level hiring autonomy. Hasn’t a lot of charter thinking around innovation, in fact, been shared and taken up by districts?
CHANG: I believe that not only are district schools learning from charter schools, we’ve also learned from other district schools across the country. I believe the power of the Common Core is for us to start learning from each other across the country. Often, we may learn from the teacher next door. We may learn from a colleague down the street. But rarely are we actually learning across the country what those best practices are. As a principal in the charter world, I had few-to-little opportunities to engage my colleagues from the traditional space. That’s why I made the decision to leave the charter sector.
CW: Can you talk about how you’re rethinking the role of the central office and its structure? I’ve heard that you’re putting in place a different role for people who report to you and how they relate to schools, with a very strong focus on teaching and instruction as the key activities that undergird everything the district does.
CHANG: I think the role of central office is to ensure the success of schools. If we believe the principal and his or her instructional team is what drives change at a school, our complete focus should be helping that team of people be successful.
CW: Does that mean rethinking the traditional role of the central office?
CHANG: How we organize ourselves, how we become a learning organization here centrally, so that we can actually model good learning for school sites – it’s all that.
CW: What’s that going to mean concretely in terms of how you’re restructuring or rethinking things within the central office?
CHANG: Yesterday was a perfect example. Day 1, we spent the entire afternoon as a leadership team actually learning. So we had people in charge of operations learning alongside people from academics, learning alongside our communication office, our finance [office]. Everybody was at the table actually learning together. So we read together, and then discussed what the implications of those readings were to the way we do our work. We used Atul Gawande’s “Cowboys and Pit Crews,” and I made a copy as a gift for you.
CW: Thank you.
CHANG: He writes about health care and how it has become so complex that no one person, no one doctor can hold all the information and all the expertise. That’s requiring doctors to work more as teams – thus working more as pit crews, not as cowboys. That’s what we need to do as a central office as well.
CW: Is it fair to say your idea for the central office is for it to operate differently and that there are going to be differences in how the people staffing it relate to schools?
CHANG: Yes, absolutely. So the deputies and the teams under the deputies will be expected to actually work across divisions. The direct support of schools will be coming from a principal leader who will be charged with bringing a team of people from central to help schools. So it’s almost a case management approach. Not necessarily one person coming in diagnosing, providing treatment. We’re going to bring in a team of people and we’re going to actually learn alongside the school.
CW: Madison Park Technical Vocational High School has been one of the city’s most troubled schools – yet everyone agrees that voke-tech schools can provide crucial pathways to careers for students. What ideas do you have for how to get Madison Park on track?
CHANG: It is my goal to make Madison Park Technical Vocational School a true gem in the Boston Public School system. Creating a far more positive, success-oriented culture at the school, one that emphasizes student performance not just on the vocational side but just as importantly on the academic side, is a critical step in putting Madison Park on the proper path to becoming a model vocational school. Expanding the number of authentic, real-world work experiences for our students there is a top priority of mine and the new leadership of Madison Park. It’s our intention to build a strong foundation of rigorous academics, combined with enhanced vocational training programs that are linked with our partners in the Boston business community, so that our students can succeed in career, college and life.
CW: I know the teachers’ contract is up this year. What are the big things on your wish list that you’d like to have in the contract conversation?
CHANG: I think it’s too early to actually say. I think it’s important that we get our ducks in line, meaning getting our 100-day plan completed. We’ve gone through a long, extensive process to get there, making sure that we get a jumpstart on our long-term strategic plan. I think that will help shape our negotiations. I’m committed to building the type of relationships where we are able to actually negotiate respectfully, to get this to a finish line this year.
CW: How have your initial interactions been with Richard Stutman [the president of the Boston Teachers Union]? He’s thought of as a pretty tough customer.
CHANG: Oh, extremely positive, actually. Very, very positive. Yesterday morning, at 8 am, in the rain I found my way to the BTU’s office and I actually dropped off some doughnuts and coffee for them.
CW: I guess we’ll see where that lands you when negotiations start.
CHANG: Well, that’s separate. This is about building a working relationship. Negotiation is just part of a bigger relationship with the union.
CW: There’s an idea that that we need to differentiate what kids get from schools. We’ve had sort of a one-size-fits-all approach. Kids who come from well-off backgrounds have so many out of school supports. Do other kids – including lots of those attending Boston schools – need a longer school day and richer set of programs available to them?
CHANG: Learning does not have to be isolated within the confines of four walls of a classroom, within the school building, or even the beginning and end of a school day and a school calendar. Learning can take place, especially in Boston, all around the city. And learning can be taking place at a home, it can be taking place online. So for me I don’t see it as just a school day issue. I see it as a reimaging of when and where teaching and learning take place. Let’s rethink the use of time and space, not only within schools but within the city. For example, I’m just amazed at the wealth of resources here in Boston, and all the people who are investing for our youngsters to actually have summer jobs. In that summer job they’re also going to be continuing the learning process. Over 10,000 youth are going to have summer jobs again this year.
CW: But a lot of high school kids are getting out of school by 2 pm or so. There’s no formal connection necessarily to extending their learning time. In an ideal world would there be a school structure that would extend later into the afternoon?
CHANG: I think longer days, longer school years are just part of the equation, because just adding 5 to 10 minutes to the algebra class versus using that algebra in the context of a work setting, I think, those are two potentially very different things.
CW: Some big hiring reforms took place under [interim superintendent] John McDonough over the last couple of years. Has that been positive and do you foresee a continuation of that in some way?
CHANG: The work there has been extremely helpful. It’s granted schools the ability to hire those who are the best fit for those schools. I know that there also are some concerns that there are a core group of [tenured] teachers that have yet to be hired [into classroom positions]. We just need to deeply analyze how we can do to better to make sure that those teachers have a fit somewhere in the system.
CW: In terms of getting acclimated, is your family here yet?
CHANG: The family is not here yet. Don’t know when exactly when the family will move over. I’m going to be working 12 to 14 hour days this next year. My entire family support structure is in California, so my immediate family will stay there for the time being.
CW: So they’re not planning to move here?
CHANG: Not for this upcoming school year. But when they do come I’ll be very excited to see my daughter in a BPS school.
CW: Is that likely the following year?
CHANG: Don’t know yet. We’ll figure it out.CW: Are you concerned that some people might take this as an indication of a less-than-complete commitment on your part to the Boston job?
CHANG: It is an absolute honor to have been chosen to lead the Boston Public Schools, and I am – and will always be – fully committed, engaged, and devoted to serving our 57,000 students and their families. They deserve nothing less of me. I am in this for the long haul and will never waver in carrying out my mission of making the public schools in this great city the best in the nation, and ensuring every student in Boston has a high-quality school near his or her home.