What’s the way forward for Boston Public Schools?

With a new superintendent coming to BPS, here are a few key areas of focus that could make an impact

December 7, 2018

By Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO

Once again, we are excited by our educational achievements. Massachusetts is number one in national student assessments. Boston is at or near the top in performance for large urban school districts.

But not everyone has a reason to cheer.

Our large urban districts are mired in a cycle of poor outcomes for low-income students. And there is little hope for dramatically different results if we keep doing the same old things.

So what are the ways to move forward? Our most promising path, charter schools, delivered decades of higher test scores, increased Advanced Placement course-taking, higher SAT scores, and higher enrollment rates in four-year colleges for low-income students and students of color. The defeat of Question 2 in 2016 closes off their growth in Boston. But an avenue for charter growth could reappear if Mayor Marty Walsh were to seek a home-rule petition to expand charter schools in Boston, where charters are most needed and have proved most effective.

MIT charter report cover 2013
Are there lessons to be learned from the charter experience?

It is a difficult path. Both the Boston City Council and the Legislature would have to approve. However, Boston mayors typically get their way in Boston, so it ought to be considered, given the enormous stakes.

Even if we accept the reality of no charter growth in the near term, we can learn a great deal from the charter experience. If we can’t have more charters, we can at least imitate the successful ones we have.

First among these lessons is to confer “autonomies” on all schools, so that far more decisions are made in schools rather than dictated by a central office or by an excessively prescriptive teachers’ contract. We have learned that school-based decision making empowers educators and school leaders to make smart decisions that pay off in student performance. Numerous studies indicate that charters and other schools with site-based autonomies outperform those in which key decisions are made by a central office.

“Autonomous” is not a synonym for “charter.” Currently, 42 Boston public schools have some level of autonomy, and they are among the most highly sought by students and parents. The next superintendent should convert the entire district to the autonomous model.

Second, there needs to be a new commitment to the people playing key leadership roles in the system. In the last two years, BPS replaced nearly a quarter of its principals and headmasters. We must ensure that this new generation of leaders has the skills and support they need to build teams that deliver high-quality individualized instruction for all of Boston’s children. Programs like the Lynch Leadership Academy and the new district partnership with the University of Virginia’s program for turnaround principals are making important contributions. The driven and diverse set of principals at Greater Boston’s district, charter, and Catholic schools coming from these pipelines have made clear in a survey that they want partnership with their central office, and need to be empowered to succeed.

Third, we need to focus our resources on the students we currently have, not those who departed years ago. Student capacity in Boston Public Schools has remained virtually unchanged for decades, even while the student population has dropped by more than 10,000 in the last two decades. The district’s BuildBPS plan estimates school buildings in the city are set up for 69,000 students – yet serve just 55,000. We owe it to today’s students to make some hard choices, and close underutilized and outdated facilities. These won’t be popular decisions, but they must be made.

We should do all this because Boston students are primed for success. Our knowledge economy richly rewards those who complete postsecondary education, and programs like Success Boston are demonstrating that coaching and support can get Boston Public Schools students ready, into, and through college. Over the last 10 years, Boston has nearly doubled the number of BPS graduates earning a postsecondary credential each year. College graduates out-earn their less credentialed peers by more than $1 million over the course of their lifetimes — which means every postsecondary degree gives its owner an opportunity for a life-changing new trajectory.

Build autonomy. Invest in school leaders. Serve today’s students. Give them a path to and through college.

These things could have immediate, measurable impacts on the lives of today’s BPS students. They provide the path forward. We just need the fortitude to follow.

This piece was originally published in the December 7, 2018 edition of the Boston Globe.