Boston mayor says Tommy Chang is the right guy to lead schools to breakthrough improvement
HE HAS SAID it is the most important hire he will make as mayor, and that was certainly not lost on Marty Walsh as he wrestled with which of the four finalists to back to be Boston’s next school superintendent.
“It was tough,” he said. “I would literally go to bed, wake up, and say, ‘oh my God.’ It was a difficult decision because I knew there was a lot at stake.”
The city’s public school system, buffeted by the busing turmoil of the 1970s, has had the stability of mayoral control over the district since the early 1990s. But that steady hand has not been accompanied by breakthrough gains, with the system still struggling to graduate students who are, in today’s favored education lingo, “college and career ready.” One-quarter of all Boston 10th graders are not proficient in English language arts, and more than one-third are not proficient in math. There have been gains in the graduation rate, but a third of students still fail to finish high school in four years.
On Tuesday afternoon, a little more than a year into his run as Boston’s first new mayor in 20 years, Walsh publicly threw his support behind Tommy Chang to lead the city’s 57,000-student school system. That night, Boston’s seven-member appointed school committee backed his choice in a 5-to-2 vote.
“I just felt Tommy Chang had the full vision, the full package to move our district forward,” Walsh said in his first interview detailing his thinking on the superintendent search and selection.
Walsh cited Chang’s work as a district administrator overseeing a swath of 130 low-performing and pilot schools in Los Angeles, his prior experience as a charter school leader, and an inclusive and deliberate style as a good listener as factors in his decision. He also pointed to a more intangible ingredient in the mix. “It has to be somebody that I gel with. You can’t have a candidate that you don’t have chemistry with,” Walsh said. “You have to have somebody you have complete confidence in. I felt that with him.”
Walsh revealed that he was torn between two finalists. “It was a difficult decision for me between Pedro Martinez and Tommy Chang,” he said. Walsh said he “really clicked” with Martinez, a former Nevada district superintendent now in charge of a statewide effort there focused on underperforming schools, and predicted he would be “a superstar on the national stage someday.” (He dismissed the talk that he had been leaning strongly toward a third candidate, Guadalupe Guerrero, a San Francisco school administrator who once served as a Boston school principal. “That came out of left field,” Walsh said.)
“Pedro said everything I wanted to hear. Tommy did, too, but in a different way,” said Walsh. “He said, ‘I want to sit back, take a view of the district, and then make the changes.’” The difference, Walsh said, had more to do with style than substance. He said he felt Chang and Martinez were both willing to push for big changes aimed at bringing more than just incremental improvement, and pointed to the strong support each voiced for vesting schools with more autonomy, while still giving them the resources and district support they need to succeed.
Martinez struck some as brash and perhaps too hard-charging during the daylong set of public interviews in Boston that each finalist underwent. Chang seemed equally forceful, Walsh said, but with what seemed a less abrasive style.
Walsh said he also thinks Chang is the right guy to continue efforts to ease tensions between charter schools and the district system. In 2011, Menino and charter leaders entered into a compact vowing a new, more collaborative relationship. It included a commitment from charters to more deliberate outreach and recruitment efforts targeting special education students and English language learners. The district agreed to consider leasing surplus buildings to charters in need of facilities.
Along with teaching biology at a tough Los Angeles area district high school, Chang served as principal of a charter school for six years. “I like that fact that he was in the charter school world, but he wanted to be in the public school world,” Walsh said Thursday morning between bites of sausage and egg on a bagel at McKenna’s Cafe, the Savin Hill breakfast spot a stone’s throw from his Dorchester house where he often begins his day.
In tapping Chang, Walsh has by some measures gone with the boldest – and riskiest – choice available. The 39-year-old educator was the youngest of the four finalists. Along with Martinez, he also seemed the most determined to shake up the way the system is structured, with talk about reshaping the role of the central office and giving individual schools more leeway to innovate.
Race was also an issue looming large over the process. All four finalists were from racial minority groups, but there was lots of pressure being applied to choose a Hispanic leader for a system where Hispanic students make up more than 40 percent of the student population. There were two Hispanic finalists, Martinez and Guerrero, a black candidate, Dana Bedden, and Chang, who immigrated as a young boy to the US from Taiwan with his family.
Walsh brushed off any talk that it may have been politically risky not to select one of the Hispanic finalists. “I would have loved to appoint the first Hispanic superintendent in the Boston Public Schools,” he said. “We appointed the first Asian superintendent in the Boston Public Schools. It’s not about keeping constituencies happy; it’s about moving the district forward. Kids come first. Education comes first over everything.”
Bedden was also drawing lots of support from parents and students, but he emailed city officials just prior to Tuesday’s meeting to withdraw from consideration. His candidacy had sparked a public campaign by parents and students in Richmond, Virginia, where he is superintendent, to convince him to stay there.
Some criticism has been offered of the search and selection process, which was handled confidentially until last month, when the four finalists were announced publicly. Former state education secretary Paul Reville, among others, said some top potential candidates were probably lost because they were unwilling to be publicly identified as seeking to move on from their current positions.
But Walsh said he has no misgivings about how the selection process was handled. “I think questions would have come in if we didn’t have an open process,” he said. “Who would have been left out or not given an opportunity?”
Tuesday night’s school committee meeting featured more than a little kabuki theater. Word had begun rocketing around town that afternoon that Chang was the mayor’s pick, and by the time the 6 pm meeting started the Globe was reporting on its website that Walsh was throwing his support to Chang. It meant the selection was a done deal, but the seven-member board, whose members are appointed by the mayor, still had to publicly consider the candidates and vote.
What ensued was, at times, a highly awkward exercise, with members struggling over whether to use past-tense references in discussing the qualities the losing candidates could have brought to the district — even though the vote had not yet taken place and no one on the board had stated publicly that Chang was the man. It sometimes felt like an episode of The Voice, with committee members in the role of Christina Aguilera or Blake Shelton as they offered soothing praise to also-ran crooners before gently sending them on their way.
All of that may have been an unavoidable bump at the end of the superintendent search road. Boston decided more than 20 years ago to move to a system of mayoral control over the city’s schools. The current school committee includes very capable members with deep understanding of education issues, and they deliberate thoughtfully – and largely unnoticed – on lots of important issues facing the district. But no one expects the selection of a superintendent under this system to take place independent of the mayor’s preference.
Two members, both appointed in recent months by Walsh, voted for Martinez, but City Hall knew going into the meeting that they had the votes needed for Chang.Asked where the buck stops with the performance of the city’s schools, Walsh began with a bit of Socratic method. “Let me put it this way,” he said. “If the superintendent’s not successful, who does it fall on? It falls on the mayor of Boston. It doesn’t fall on the school committee.”
He said there was great chemistry between him and Tommy Chang, and that’s a good thing. Because they are now joined at the hip.