Marathon Man

Surrounded by the auto body shops and waste haulers of Roxbury’s Newmarket section, the Samuel Mason Elementary School is a lonely educational outpost. But the brick schoolhouse is one of the success stories of Boston’s efforts at education reform. Despite its gritty location, the Mason outshines many suburban schools. Last year, 97 percent of its fourth-grade students passed the English portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam, and 100 percent passed the math section. These results were all the more remarkable coming from an elementary school that a decade ago was the one least chosen citywide by parents looking for a school for their children.

Among schoolchildren: Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant
at the Eliot Elementary School.

There are good reasons for this transformation, according to Janet Palmer-Owens, principal of the 210-student school. For example, Mason teachers no longer work in isolation; they meet weekly in teams to plan lessons and grade student work. They don’t travel to training seminars; instead, math and literacy “coaches” visit the Mason and other schools, working with teachers to develop lessons for their classrooms. The first-grade papers decorating a stairwell in the school last fall, for instance, were products of a crash course in writing essays, devised with the help of a literacy coach. And Palmer-Owens relies on college interns- hired as “paraprofessionals”- to fill in for teachers who are in training sessions, thus eliminating the need for substitutes who might be unprepared for the day’s lesson.

Palmer-Owens says that she crams in as much schooling as possible between the morning and afternoon bells. “We have looked at things other than money,” she says. “We look at … how to get more students more time.”

In addition to the MCAS, students in each grade are evaluated on a routine basis throughout the year. Says Candace Chick, a literacy coordinator and teacher of a combined fourth-and-fifth-grade class, if you ask, “How’s Michael doing?,” the answer comes “from this armful of assessment data I have in my hands. It’s a real answer.”

The priorities at the Mason are those of Thomas W. Payzant, Boston’s superintendent of schools since 1995, who has imposed them throughout the 130-school district. These days, no principal can figure out enough ways to create more time for literacy and math instruction. No teacher can afford to ignore data and what they say about student success or failure. And no student can escape the reality that there is a test out there with his or her name on it, a test that will hold the key to promotion to the next grade or graduation from high school.

Besides these preoccupations, what the 61-year-old Payzant has given Boston is something that few other urban school systems in America have enjoyed recently: consistent leadership. And his time is not yet over. In December, Payzant agreed to stay on through 2005. That will make him the first superintendent in more than 40 years to lead the Boston schools for a decade.

With his final contract in hand- the pact will pay him $171,000 this year- Payzant enters a critical stage in his mission to turn all of the city’s schools into institutions that serve their 63,000 students as effectively as the Mason does. There’s a consensus that the city’s 79 elementary schools are functioning at a much higher level than when Payzant arrived, but the superintendent now faces stubborn problems that are endemic to urban education: failure-ridden high-school programs, disconnected parents, and the looming threat of a graduation-day crisis next year, when the first class of students runs out of time to pass the MCAS in order to get a high-school diploma.

The next four years will also determine the professional legacy of a man completing his fifth and presumably final superintendence. But Payzant has a remarkable collection of Boston’s power brokers in his corner. He remains the darling of City Hall, state education officials, business leaders, newspaper editorialists, and many school-reform advocates across the city. Mindful of how political sniping has weakened past superintendents (and their school-improvement plans), even those disappointed by the pace and sweep of Payzant’s overhaul have mostly held their tongues. No one in a position of influence wants to be seen as undermining the man who may be the Boston school system’s best hope for salvation.

Still, even some of Payzant’s allies are waiting for evidence that the stalwart superintendent will be able to raise the city’s schools, apart from competitive-admission exam schools, above the level of urban mediocrity.

“He seems to have done all the right things,” says James A. Peyser, chairman of the state Board of Education. “However, when all is said and done, are the schools better? Anecdotally, yes. But the question remains whether the schools are improving and whether the high schools can be reformed. The high schools are way behind, and it’s not clear if the reforms are going to get there in time.”

Bland ambition

“When I started this job, my major goal was to say my administration is going to focus on teaching and learning,” says Payzant, in an interview in his offices at 26 Court Street, across the street from Boston City Hall. “My goal is that this will be true in every school and every classroom, and we will positively impact every student. I don’t want my legacy to be simply that there were a few more schools that improved during Payzant’s term, but not much impact on the system as a whole.”

After six years on the job, Payzant is as relentless as the day he started. His energy appears unaffected by a 10-week medical leave required when he contracted viral meningitis and encephalitis last summer, a frightening incident that might have convinced someone else so close to retirement age to call it a career and head for the nearest professorship. Recovering ahead of schedule, Payzant disregarded his doctor’s orders of eight-hour days, though he professes to have shortened his workday to 10 hours and lightened the briefcase he takes home at night.

Payzant remains focused on his reform plan, which bears the simple title”Focus on Children.” When he laid out the plan in 1996, he zeroed in on a single, if sometimes elusive, goal: literacy. If nothing else, kids in the Boston schools were going to learn how to read.

“It’s simple. It’s fundamental. It’s radical,” says Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which runs school-to-career programs in partnership with the schools. “We can discuss whether it’s sufficient. But it’s certainly more dramatic than any other six-year school-reform run in any comparable city.”

“Dramatic” is not a word often associated with Tom Payzant, who cultivates the appearance of a serious man engaged in serious work. He dresses his trim, 5-foot-8-inch frame in dark suits, his angular face framed by no-nonsense eyeglasses. He typically brown-bags his lunch, eating at his desk. In public forums, Payzant chooses his words carefully, revealing little emotion, even when under attack. But in more intimate settings, he’s eager to talk, whether about recent school visits or his grandchildren, who live in New York City and Minnesota.

These public and private sides intersect in two situations: when he visits the city’s schools and when he must soothe angry parents. He plans his schoolhouse inspections carefully, making sure not to spend too much time at any one school. Once inside, he ambles up and down hallways, principals in tow, checking in with teachers, reviewing classroom displays, and taking in the work hung on corridor walls. He likes to stop and chat with the children.

With up-in-arms parents, Payzant stands his ground without seeming to dig in his heels. When he reassigned the popular principals of the Wheatley Middle School two years ago and the Curley Middle School last year, parents protested and turned out in force at school committee hearings. But once Payzant sat down with each group, the opposition disappeared. He wears down opponents with dogged persistence, his willingness to listen masking an unwillingness to budge.

For six years now, Payzant has applied his slow-and-steady approach to a system riven by forced busing, the politics of the old elected school board (scrapped by voters in a 1990 referendum), and a parade of superintendents who entered and left Court Street every four or five years between 1968 and 1995.

“When he came here…the Boston Public Schools were probably at the lowest point they had been at in a long time,” says school committee president Elizabeth Reilinger, who is also president of the Crittenton Hastings House, a Brighton-based youth agency. “There was no confidence in the system.”

Two management audits by the accounting firm Peat Marwick had described an operating system in chaos. Weeks before Payzant took office, the state Board of Education even considered a state takeover of Hub schools. In a school system plagued by political turmoil and institutional inertia, there are benefits that come from simply sticking around.

“He’s out-waited them all,” says Ellen Guiney, president of the Boston Plan for Excellence in the Public Schools, which works with individual schools on education reform. “[There are] principals or teachers who might have said, ‘Just wait, he¹ll be gone in three years.’ Well, he’s still here. I think it became clear that what was happening at Court Street was going to have to be followed.”

In playing this waiting game, Payzant has had plenty of teammates. He enjoys the full confidence of Thomas M. Menino, the most popular mayor in the city’s history, who handpicks the Boston School Committee- which formally employs Payzant but mostly follows his policy lead. Payzant also enjoys a strong relationship with the Boston Teachers Union and its president, Ed Doherty (see “Payzant¹s union dues,” page 46). The state’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act has pumped more than $7 billion into the state’s K-12 schools, with Boston getting enough of that aid to boost average per-pupil spending from $6,399 in 1993 to $10,160 in 2002. In all, the system’s budget topped $635 million this year.

If a superintendent ever had the backing to turn around urban schools, it is Payzant.

Payzant has also managed to snare considerable outside resources- $28 million awarded to the district in the last six months. The Carnegie Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have pledged $8 million to help Payzant carry out a restructuring of the district’s high schools. The National Science Foundation has promised the city $7 million to train teachers in math and science, to be followed by $3 million from the federal government to develop science programs, and local business leaders recently kicked off a fund drive aimed at raising another $11 million for this effort. Boston is the only district in the country to receive a second round of funding from the Annenberg Foundation, in the form of a $10 million pledge designed to carry on the school-based reforms and teacher training.

“One of the major reasons Annenberg picked Boston in the first go-round and the second was Tom Payzant,” says Reilinger. “Tom was a recognized educational leader, and they were willing to take the risk.”

A mixed report card

If a superintendent ever had the political and financial backing to turn around an urban school system, it is Tom Payzant. And there are indications that he’s succeeding, albeit slowly. In 1998, 53 of the city’s elementary schools saw more than half their students fail (or earn a score of “warning,” in today’s terminology) the fourth-grade MCAS in math. By 2001, there were only 23 schools with those kinds of results. In 1998, there were 22 elementary schools with more than half their students in the failing category on the English Language Arts exam. By 2001, there were only seven such schools.

The Boston school system also uses the national Stanford 9 test to track student performance in reading and math, and these results have progressed in small increments each year. In reading, the percentage of Boston students in all grades scoring in Level 1 (the equivalent of the MCAS “warning” or”failing” level) dropped from 24 percent to 19 percent between 1996 and 2000. In mathematics, the percentage of the city’s students at Level 1 dropped from 50 percent in 1996 to 37 percent in 2000.

But the most closely watched scores have been those of the 10th-grade MCAS exam. There, the number of students who passed the English section jumped from 43 percent in 1998 to 60 percent in 2001. In 1998, just a quarter of the city’s sophomores passed the math section. Last year, 53 percent of the 10th-graders got passing scores.

Although critics point to the number of dropouts from the district- 1,647 in 2000, with the rate hovering between 8 and 9 percent under Payzant, according to the state Department of Education- a recent Manhattan Institute study of the 50 largest school systems found Boston’s graduation rate trailed only three other school districts: Fairfax County, Va.; Montgomery County, Md.; and Albuquerque, NM. And in its annual survey of graduates from the city’s high schools, Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies has pointed to small but steady increases in college-going rates for students in the 63,000-student district. Last year, 69 percent of the 3,000-member class of 2000 attended two- or four-year colleges, a rate that has gradually crept up during Payzant’s tenure. The national average- including rural and suburban schools- is 63 percent. Payzant understands that the MCAS jump in part reflects the Class of 2003’s greater motivation as the first class to face it as a graduation requirement. Still, the superintendent says the higher pass rate reflects the vital, steady momentum necessary to push the schools forward.

“This work takes time,” Payzant said. “It takes a sense of urgency. It takes focus. But it’s not the kind of work that you can bring somebody in for a year or even two and say, ‘Turn it all around.'”

Still, the clock is ticking, with the alarm set for June 2003. Despite fears that hundreds, even thousands, of Boston students might be denied diplomas because of the graduation test, Payzant has publicly embraced MCAS as part of a range of academic benchmarks, including a rigid 1998 promotional policy that requires students to reach grade-level competency or attend mandatory summer school. He used the approaching 2003 MCAS deadline as a lever to create the district’s $21 million “transition” program, which provides double sessions of math and English to struggling students in second, third, and fifth-through-ninth grades, and includes one of the few mandatory summer-school programs in the state.

Carlene Roberts and sons: frustrated by bureaucracy.

Janice Jackson, a former deputy superintendent under Payzant who now teaches at Boston College, says that her old boss may soon face a delicate situation. “He’s had a continued commitment to staying focused on teaching and learning and not letting the political arena get in the way,” says Jackson. “[But] as students don’t pass the MCAS, the politics are going to heat up, not just in Boston but across the state. The focus has to stay on student learning. That’s the first task.”

Indeed, although Payzant stands shoulder-to-shoulder with state officials at press conferences to reinforce the stay-the-course public message on MCAS, in private he admits that the time may come to back off.

“Let’s see what happens over several years, see if the growth is there, if it is rapid enough to get us to where we want to be in 2003, where a high percentage of the students pass,” he says. “If, after we’ve got data, we say we need more time, I’ll be there at the head of the line saying, ‘Let’s push it back a year or two.’But let’s not do that prematurely.”

To Boston City Councilor Charles “Chuck” Turner, however, Payzant’s push for high standards has not paid off for the district’s students, 85 percent of whom are minorities. Even with improved passing rates, 1,369 Boston sophomores last spring failed the English section and 1,726 failed the math section. (Many of those students took a retest version of the exam in early December. In all, they will have three more chances to take the exams in time to get a diploma in 2003.) To Turner, those numbers hardly add up to success.

“For the system to work, we need to see a vast majority of students moving to proficiency at all levels and the achievement gap lowering, and we don’t have that,” says Turner. “We’re far from meeting those goals. I don’t think we should accept less for our children. I don’t think getting a majority of students into ‘needs improvement’ means having an effective educational system. That’s where we are now. It’s a start, but not the hallmark of a system a parent wants to put their children into.”

Hubie Jones, special assistant for urban affairs to the chancellor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, thinks Payzant and other school officials need a greater sense of urgency. “Creeping up is not good enough,” says Jones. “We’re talking about the life chances of young people, most of whom are folks of color. You can’t have these failure rates in math and science at the high-school levels and believe these people are going to have any life chances.”

Urban school mechanic

In picking Payzant, the Boston School Committee- and, behind the scenes, Menino- passed over two flashier reformers: hometown finalist Harry Spence, renowned as a turnaround artist for his role as receiver of the Boston Housing Authority and the corruption-torn city of Chelsea, and Anthony Alvarado, a charismatic New York district superintendent who had the backing of Hispanic activists. (After working as an administrator for New York City’s schools, Spence was named last year to reform the state Department of Social Services.) The Boston Globe endorsed Spence, while the Boston Herald pulled for Alvarado.

By comparison, Payzant’s resume was stellar, but his manner less than inspiring. A Quincy native, educated at Williams College and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Payzant had been superintendent in four other cities, including the much larger San Diego school district, before becoming a US assistant secretary of education. While Alvarado offered a vision of reform (even Spence called Alvarado a “legend” for his leadership in New York’s District 2), Payzant presented his credentials as a manager. Instead of making rousing speeches, Payzant dwelled on the tools of his trade: curriculum standards, accountability measures, and professional development for teachers.

In the end, committee members said they chose Payzant’s track record and national reputation over the adrenaline offered by two candidates hungry to define themselves in a new setting.

“We didn’t want someone coming in here who was looking for a proving ground,” says Reilinger, the school committee head. “There are many superintendents with lots of brilliant ideas. But if you can’t create the organization to carry out the ideas, it doesn’t work. Tom was a proven leader. He had a record of accomplishment with urban schools.”

Despite his steady-as-she-goes stewardship, Payzant has done his share of shaking up, particularly of school principals. He started by ousting a group of six in April 1996- including the heads of two high schools, Dorchester and Hyde Park- in a move heralded as the first of its kind in three decades. But to some school critics, this seemed like weak tea. Instead of praising the new superintendent, one parent watchdog group called for more heads to roll. They have, but in Payzant’s typically low-key manner, with principals and headmasters replaced in bunches every spring and summer. Over his six years, Payzant has replaced 83 of the system’s 130 principals.

Payzant has not exactly turned the system upside down. Some think he should.

Still, Payzant has not exactly turned the school system upside down, to the dismay of those who believe that’s exactly what needs to be done, particularly with regard to the Court Street bureaucracy. In the summer of 2000, administrators realized that their five-year, $17 million textbook purchasing program was coming undone in classrooms, where tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of books disappeared without a trace. That fall, there was another book debacle: Two months into the year, thousands of students were without history textbooks. Administrators blamed the delay on the unprecedented step of ordering books from 27 vendors, rather than three or four, in order to prepare for state history frameworks, which were slated for release in 2001.

The textbook fiascoes have been an embarrassment, Payzant admits, though he maintains that teachers were able to serve students until the history texts arrived by using other materials. On the inventory problems, he says, “I was lulled into thinking that because we were putting more money into textbook and instructional materials than ever before, that I was correcting the problems and could leave to the schools the responsibility that books wouldn’t walk away. I was slower on the uptake on that than I should have been.”

Father figure

Payzant has also been criticized for failing to make Court Street more “customer friendly.” This winter, he enraged some parents by proposing to cut $500,000 in school department subsidies for advocacy groups that serve special needs, bilingual, and low-income families, as well as for the Citywide Parents Council, a parent watchdog group that dates back to the 1974 desegregation case. The school committee appears ready to go along with his recommendation on the condition that he increase parent outreach and involvement in other ways.

Payzant acknowledges he hasn’t “gotten it right” on parent involvement. But he says the district has to engage parents on its own, offering accountability for failures and successes, rather than by means of city-funded advocacy groups that have long been seen- though rarely acknowledged- as ineffectual and more representative of entrenched rabble-rousers than parents. Payzant’s proposal would have the advocacy groups fend for themselves, paying their own way through grants and private funding. A revamped parent support services department would put school department personnel in charge of resolving problems parents have with the system.

“I reached a point where I couldn’t look myself in the mirror and say the current system is working, so we’ve got to take it on. Which is exactly what I’m doing,” Payzant says. “With the benefit of hindsight, I probably should have done it earlier.”

But John Mudd, policy director of the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, which represents at-risk and special-needs students, says the move reflects the school district’s disdain for parents. “The system still suffers from a professional culture that says, ‘We know what is best for you and your family, and you, Mr. and Mrs. Parent, are our servants in carrying out what we know best.’ This is not the way to engage parents.”

But Payzant understands that the main way to engage parents is to attract them to the schools. He insists that his approach of rebuilding the schools from kindergarten up is the best way to do so. “If you start with kindergarten, our students are going to get what they need to prepare for first grade and what hopefully will make them good readers by grade three and capable to make that tough transition to grade four, where you move from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn,'”says Payzant. “The literacy focus is there. For a parent starting out, that’s major.”

Whether it’s major enough to stop the annual flight of white and middle-class families to the suburbs and to alternatives increasingly available to city residents is unclear. Roughly 20,000 school-age Boston children now attend parochial schools, METCO, and charter schools. A recent study revealed that since 1990, Boston’s elementary school population has grown poorer and more overwhelmingly minority, with the percentage of nonwhite students rising from 76 percent to 86 percent over the decade.

Parental concerns often go beyond teaching methods./p>

Parental concerns often go beyond teaching methods to include the student assignment lottery, daily transportation, and school violence. In January, parents once again overwhelmed information centers on the first day of the month-long school registration session, and the director of parent services defended the long lines by comparing the process to a delicatessen counter. Payzant may be overhauling the school system, but the burden of tangling with the school system at every turn continues to erode the good will of parents.

“I basically have two jobs: my job I get paid to do and my job to take care of my sons’ education at their two schools,” says Hyde Park resident Carlene Roberts, who has two children in the Boston public schools. “If something is not right, I am down at school to make sure it gets straightened out.”

Roberts encountered the vagaries of the student assignment plan last spring, when she transferred her sixth-grade son out of METCO and back into Boston.”I visited a lot of schools to find the best middle school for my son,” she says. “We picked three good schools and when we found out which one he was going too, it wasn’t even one of the three. So what was the point of all that work?”

But Rhonna Garoz of Allston, herself a graduate of the city’s public schools, says the system is getting better. “It’s changed a lot in the last six or seven years,” says the parent of three children, the youngest now enrolled at the Baldwin Elementary School. “Now reading is a big thing. There’s a whole reading program and a reading contract we sign through fifth grade. You have to work with your child, parent and child together, which is very good. So I¹m very pro-Boston schools.”

Comments like those are music to Payzant’s ears. And they are the reason that Payzant still has the confidence of the mayor. “We have teaching and learning we never had in our classrooms. We have technology we have never had in our classrooms. We even have discipline we lacked in our classrooms, when you look at our elementary schools,” says Menino. “We are making steady progress. Our schools are doing much better. Are all the schools where we want them to be? No. But we’re making progress, and that’s important to Boston parents.”

Tom Payzant is one of the few big-city superintendents who’s been on the job long enough to acquire hindsight. San Francisco, coping with allegations of financial mismanagement in the school system, is on its third superintendent in the past decade. In Chicago, public schools chief executive Paul Vallas recently left after six years, amid declining test scores and criticism over stagnant instructional practices (though this record has not deterred Vallas from running for governor). Los Angeles has turned to a former governor, Colorado’s Roy Romer, to take on its sprawling school district. Facing massive budget deficits and chronic political infighting, the Philadelphia schools were taken over by the state of Pennsylvania, which then turned over 60 failing schools to the for-profit Edison Schools group.

In contrast, Boston’s school system is an island of tranquility. “Every year Tom does what I call his ‘opening day speech,'” says the Boston Private Industry Council’s Sullivan, who has three children in the public schools.”It’s a struggle to get out that message, because what he really wants to say is that everything is the same. And that’s new. Because everybody is used to seeing the plan change every year.”

That makes Tom Payzant’s Boston a national test case. “Tom is [like] E.F. Hutton. When he opens his mouth, people really stop and listen,” says Robert Schwartz, president of Achieve, a standards-based reform group formed by the nation’s governors. “He represents the hope that if you have enough political stability and have the kind of support he’s enjoyed here, what you can really do is start to get work done. He offers a yardstick about when you can start to expect to see fruits from this early work.”

With all the political and financial resources at his disposal, says state board of education chairman Peyser, Payzant could be drawing a blueprint for reform of urban schools from within‹or, if he comes up short, proving the
need for more drastic measures.

Meet the Author
“If somebody like Tom Payzant can’t make it happen, then there is something fundamentally, structurally wrong with the Boston public schools,” says Peyser. “It’s probably the core issue for all urban school districts: Does the structure make it impossible to effect basic changes and improvements?”

Ed Hayward covers education for theBoston Herald.