Group pushes school autonomy

A coalition of education leaders says the city’s first open race for mayor in two decades creates an unprecedented opportunity to remake public education in Boston

Twenty years ago this month, as Tom Menino was about to take office as Boston’s acting mayor, the state adopted the landmark 1993 education reform law. It was, in many ways, an audacious leap of faith, predicated on the idea that with rigorous new academic standards and a massive infusion of funding to under-resourced districts, students from even the poorest backgrounds could achieve at high levels. Bringing all students to at least a basic level of proficiency had never before been a premise of American public education, and exactly what it would take to make good on such a goal was not clear.

Two decades later, as Menino prepares to exit the stage, a broad coalition of education leaders say we have a much better idea of what it will take to realize the full promise of education reform — and they are seizing on this pivotal moment of change to put forward a sweeping vision for public education in Boston that they hope to make front and center in the unfolding race for mayor.

The key principle that should drive education reform in Boston, says the new “Boston:Forward” coalition, is a turn away from the industrial-era model of a centrally-managed district and an embrace of autonomy and accountability at the school level. That autonomy, says the coalition, is a characteristic shared by many schools that have successfully raised achievement levels among poor and minority students, and it represents the best thinking about what it takes for organizations to thrive and continuously improve.

The group, which so far includes more than 80 education leaders, wants mayoral candidates to support a lifting of the state cap on charter schools, which enjoy broad autonomy over their operations, and push for an extension of similar freedoms to the district’s individual 128 schools. The coalition includes leaders of many Boston charter schools, nonprofit officials whose organizations work with district schools, as well as two district school leaders.

“We think this should be the defining issue of the race,” says Chris Gabrieli, one of the coalition organizers and the founder of Massachusetts 2020, a nonprofit that advocates for longer school days.

The ability of individual schools to chart their own course when it comes to teacher hiring, curriculum, and the structure of the school day has been the hallmark of charter schools, independently run public schools that operate outside the confines of district systems. A recent study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, widely regarded as the most credible source of data nationally on charter school performance, identified Boston charter schools as the highest-performing charter sector in the country.

But a similar kind of autonomy also characterizes a number of district schools, like the Orchard Gardens School in Roxbury, which have been given lots of leeway over teacher staffing and other aspects of their operations, in many cases because student outcomes were so poor under the conventional district-led model.

“It takes effective teachers and an effective leader whose hands aren’t tied by mandates that don’t necessarily meet the needs of students,” says coalition member Andrew Bott, who was named principal of Orchard Gardens three years ago when the school was designated a “turnaround” because of chronically low student achievement levels.

Orchard Gardens has shown among the highest rates of achievement growth of any school in the state, an example of what the coalition believes is possible if more district schools are given similar freedoms and held accountable for their results.

The coalition hopes to influence the thinking of all the candidates for mayor, and is making plans to meet individually with each of them to share the group’s vision. 

Four candidates, Roxbury nonprofit leader John Barros, Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley, City Councilor John Connolly, and health center founder Bill Walczak, have already voiced strong support for raising the charter cap and extending similar autonomies to district schools. State Rep. Marty Walsh supports the charter-cap lift, but the former union leader seems to be searching for a middle ground on the issue of district school autonomy.  At a forum last week, Walsh said that he’d try to negotiate such changes with the city’s teachers union rather than impose them through legislation now pending on Beacon Hill.

While candidates’ views on whether to lift the state cap on charter schools have already emerged as a major issue in the race, leaders of the new education coalition emphasize that the next mayor’s biggest impact will be on policies of the district schools he or she will directly oversee, which educate the overwhelming majority of Boston students.

Coalition members say that means it’s also crucial that the next mayor focus not simply on hiring a highly-regarded administrator to replace retiring superintendent Carol Johnson, but on recruiting a leader who shares the vision of pushing resources and authority – along with accountability for outcomes – down to the school level.     

Rather than aiming to build a great school system – a challenge that has eluded every large urban district in the country — the new thinking talks about having a system of great schools. It’s a minor change in word order that signals a fundamental break with the centralized district structure that has characterized big-city school systems for a hundred years.

Rejecting the polarization of what they call a tiresome war pitting district school advocates against charter school supporters, the Boston:Forward coalition also says the next mayor should embrace the idea of developing a constellation of high-quality schools, regardless of whether they operate within or outside the district structure.

Such an approach would represent a major shift away from the often contentious debates over urban school reform, says Andy Smarick, author of The Urban School System of the Future.  Smarick says it would mean saying the city’s only concern is expanding the number of seats at high-quality schools, whether charter or district. To say “we don’t care who runs them as long as they’re great – that’s a revolutionary mindset from which everything else cascades,” he says.

The vision put forth by the Boston:Forward coalition represents a bold break with the status quo. At the same time, it doesn’t involve so much a reinventing of the education reform wheel as a call for the next mayor to embrace aggressively the reform measures that have already been set in motion.

“Our message is that Boston could break out beyond any district in the country simply by allowing the things in Boston that are outstanding to multiply, by getting out of the way,” says Gabrieli.

“We are sending the message that we know what works,” Bott says of the school-level autonomy – coupled with strict accountability for results – that is at the heart of a national movement in reform circles to rethink urban education. “It’s about taking that to scale.”

Two years ago, Menino and charter school leaders signed a compact that declared an end to years of acrimony between the two sectors. Charter schools pledged, among other things, to increase outreach to recruit English language learners and special needs students, while the district committed to consider leasing surplus school buildings to charter operators.

Paul Reville, who stepped down in January as the state secretary of education, says the coalition’s call for more charter schools and more autonomy for district schools largely takes up where a major 2010 education bill left off. That legislation, the biggest statewide reform since the original 1993 ed reform law, allowed for more charter schools and authorized communities to create new in-district “innovation” schools, which would enjoy many of the same freedoms as charter schools.

“We need more good charters, we need more schools inside the system to embrace autonomy,” says Reville.

The Boston:Forward coalition does not plan to endorse a candidate in the mayor’s race. Its leaders say they want to influence the education debate and the thinking of all the candidates. 

Individual members of the coalition, however, are supporting candidates. Not surprisingly, Connolly, who has made aggressive school reform the centerpiece of his campaign, enjoys the support of a number of members. But Barros, Walczak, and Walsh also have backers within the coalition.

Fully embracing the group’s reform vision will mean bucking the city’s teachers union, a line some candidates will be reluctant to want to cross. The coalition wants the city’s next mayor to push for adoption of a “thin contract” with teachers, an agreement that would maintain basic due process protections but would free school leaders from many current contract restrictions, including the rights of teachers to claim vacant positions in schools even if a principal doesn’t want them on board or believe they are a good fit with the culture or mission being developed at a school.

While such changes have been resisted by the Boston Teachers Union, some teacher organizations, including one working with the Boston district, say a turn to a more performance-based, rather than seniority-based, system would enhance the professional status of teachers. Leaders of Teach Plus, a teacher organization that promotes policies to aid the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers in Boston and five other cities, have signed on to the Boston:Forward coalition.

“Autonomy at schools can create the flexibility to give teachers a strong role in the leadership of the school and in creating a vision for how a school should operate,” says Lindsay Sobel, executive director of the Boston office of Teach Plus.

The Boston:Forward coalition sprang to life in the days after Menino’s announcement in March that he wouldn’t seek reelection. The education leaders were excited by the prospect that an open race for mayor could free up the education debate in Boston, which would no longer be hemmed in by the presence of a powerful incumbent with a stake in defending the current system.

Even without his name on the ballot, Menino is asserting a certain presence in the race – or is at least trying to. In May, at a luncheon honoring Boston high school valedictorians, he warned mayoral candidates not to “tear the Boston schools down.” Though it may come off as understandable hometown cheerleading, the effect is to cast as a negative force any effort to push outside the Menino reform box.

Menino rightly deserves credit for a steady commitment to schools and for opening the door to many of the changes now being pushed. But many reformers say he has settled for incremental gains and shied away from pressing the system as hard as he could.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Members of the new coalition say the city may be at a rare juncture, where an understanding of what it might take to dramatically ratchet up the number of high-quality schools is coming into focus just as a transition in city and school leadership is creating an opening to seize the opportunity to move beyond incremental progress.

“We really think now is the moment to do this,” says coalition member Mark Culliton, CEO of College Bound Dorchester, a nonprofit that targets high-risk youth with the goal of equipping them with the skills to graduate from college. Any hesitation about thinking big at this stage, says Culliton, is driven by reluctance to upset the status quo, not by the lack of successful models that point the way forward.