Lessons for Boston on how schools and school districts improve

We can draw from experience in BPS and elsewhere to drive change

THE BOSTON PUBLIC SCHOOL system is in a moment of crisis. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s recently released report describes a dysfunctional system with fundamental student services and supports suffering as a result. As Boston and state leadership work toward a plan for partnership with the goal of addressing key areas, families, advocates, and educators alike are voicing their opinions on what the district can and should do to address these issues with urgency. All of this serves as a backdrop to the city’s search for a new superintendent. Despite these headwinds, BPS is in the position to embrace new possibilities and chart a course that leads to lasting improvement and real change for schools and students.

In this difficult moment, Boston should look to what we’ve learned about how schools and school districts improve and succeed to help guide what our community and next superintendent must focus on to move BPS forward. At EdVestors, we have spotlighted, studied, and partnered with improving schools in Boston and followed the national research – including Karin Chenoweth’s Districts That Succeed – that shares insightful best practices on improving schools and districts. We know empirically that five essential elements form the foundation of school and district improvement: effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environments, and ambitious instruction.

Across the board, we’ve found that effective school and district leadership are at the core of improvement and success. As Chenoweth posits, and as I’ve observed and experienced through my work, strong superintendents support the needs and learning of principals, strong principals prioritize the needs and learning of teachers, and strong teachers focus on the needs of and learning of students.

Effective school leaders create a culture of trust where teachers are free to express vulnerability and need to feel confident they will receive the support of district leadership in return. They set up time and structures for teachers to observe one another and enable collaboration. Strong school leaders realize each teacher cannot possibly have all of the information needed to help their students succeed and encourage collaboration in order for all students to learn.

There are a number of examples of improving schools within the BPS school district, including those that have won our School on the Move Prize, that we can look to for inspiration and a roadmap for implementation. At the Winship Elementary School, teachers collaborate in grade level teams to analyze data, plan based on the data with educators leading whole school professional development due to the systems and structures set up by school leaders. At the Harvard-Kent Elementary School, systems and structures for teachers have been in place and consistently implemented to focus on rigorous instruction and student support to raise the literacy outcomes of their students. At the Otis Elementary School, the use of Academic Parent Teacher Teams (APTT), a data-focused partnership between teachers and parents to help strengthen student learning, has been a critical lever for family engagement consistently implemented over the past several years.

At the district level, the core ingredients are similar to those observed at the school level. Effective district leaders believe in the capacity of all students to learn, and shoulder the responsibility to ensure that their schools have leaders who can establish cultures and can rely on the systems that ensure that students and teachers are able to continually learn and improve.

To ensure these schools can continue to improve and that others follow and sustain the same trajectory, the district must be organized to support this improvement. Schools exist in a complex ecosystem that affects them in numerous and ongoing ways. The district must create the conditions for those schools to be on the right path and ensure schools are improving because of the ecosystem within which they operate, not in spite of it. This includes the systems, designed and implemented with fidelity over time, that need to be in place to address the issues around special education, English learners, and transportation that have been highlighted as urgent needs for the district, as well as the systems for hiring, retaining and supporting skilled school leaders.

While BPS is in the midst of some transitions, such as a probable city-state partnership and the welcoming of a new superintendent, any plans for school improvement should be informed and centered on our learnings from rapidly improving schools and districts. To do so, BPS needs leadership that guides a district with faith in their educators’ capabilities to facilitate learning and in their students to achieve success.

Marinell Rousmaniere is the president & CEO of EdVestors. This is the first commentary in a “20/20 Series” in CommonWealth, commemorating  EdVestors’ 20th anniversary by sharing insights gathered over 20 years to address the challenges facing public schools today.