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Next Boston Superintendent faces difficult decisions in effort to accelerate improvements

Research and interviews find areas of opportunity, but call for clear plans of action to reduce inequity and accelerate student performance growth

February 26, 2019

Boston–A new report from Bellwether Education Partners finds that the Boston Public Schools remains among the best-performing large urban school districts in the country, but the gap between Boston and other cities is shrinking – providing the next superintendent with both an opportunity and a challenge to improve equity and student performance.

Bellwether BPS report coverThe report, An Uneven Path: Student Achievement in Boston Public Schools 2007-2017, finds that Boston students continue to outperform their peers in other cities on performance tests, but that a decade of tight budgets, aging facilities and persistent achievement gaps in the city have narrowed the gap between Boston and peer cities. 

Researchers looked at testing and graduation data, and conducted interviews with key education stakeholders across the city to examine policies and issues that provide context for the district performance. 

“This research rightly notes that while Boston is still among the best large urban school districts, the gap is shrinking and Boston still falls short of what we want to see for our students,” said Paul Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “The next superintendent will not only need to set a strong direction for the future, he or she will have to make some hard choices to reduce waste and excess capacity, and reallocate those resources to meet the needs of all students.”

““Boston does well compared to many other urban school systems, but deep, persistent inequities are also clear in the results, especially for black, Hispanic, and low income students. At this time of change, district leaders may be able to learn from other cities, and face the challenges ahead with urgency and a clear vision for improving student outcomes,” said Bonnie O’Keefe, co-author of the report from Bellwether Education Partners.

Building from relative strength

The next Boston superintendent will inherit a district that has made progress in some key areas over the last decade – such as high school graduation, college completion and pre-K enrollment. High school graduation rates have risen for every subgroup in the Boston Public Schools, including low-income students, English Language Learners and students with disabilities. Boston also typically ranks among the top large urban districts in the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Trial Urban District Assessment, although scores on the TUDA have plateaued or even declined in recent years among minority students, and lags the state on MCAS scores. 

The city has also increased the number of students enrolled in pre-kindergarten – today well over half of Boston’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in BPS school-based pre-K programs. The district also received praise from a number of stakeholders for improving its “human capital” management, accelerating hiring and making other changes intended to give principals greater authority to shape their instructional teams. 

However, stakeholders noted a number of other areas where the district’s direction was less clear or poorly communicated, in part because of turnover in the superintendent position. The next superintendent will be the district’s fifth (including interim appointments) in the past 10 years. The turnover has led to shifts in policy and what some stakeholders saw as mixed messages on areas such as school autonomy and a lack of consistent community engagement. Another key initiative, the “home based school choice” plan, had been found to have little to no positive impact on access to quality schools, and efforts to change school start times to improve student achievement were scrapped after community pushback and complaints that parents and community members were left out of the planning process. 

Overall, the interviewees said that community confidence in BPS’ prospects for effectively addressing inequities in school quality, facilities and achievement was low. 

Ideas for the future

While stopping short of suggesting prescriptive solutions for the incoming superintendent, the researchers shared three strategies for the next BPS leader that could accelerate improvement:

Articulate a clear, concise theory of action and drive it through implementation.
The next leader of BPS will have to articulate a coherent and focused vision, anchored in a defined set of key priorities, for the future. Without a clear set of targeted priorities, district leaders will get bogged down in trying to address every strategy at once, leading to inefficiency and weak execution.

Make tough choices to advance equity.
BPS’ persistent struggles with inequitable outcomes by race, ethnicity, income, native language, and special education status are incompatible with the city’s vision of itself as an urban district that stands above its peers.

Double down on areas of strength and bright spots.
Both the objective data and our qualitative interviews point to a few bright spots that merit continued investment and improvement. These strengths include expanded early childhood access and quality, changes to human capital processes that appear to be attracting a better, more diverse talent pool to Boston schools, and positive external partnerships.

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The Boston FoundationThe Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, brings people and resources together to solve Boston’s big problems. Established in 1915, it is one of the largest community foundations in the nation—with net assets of $1.3 billion. In 2018, the Foundation and its donors paid $129 million in grants to nonprofit organizations. The Foundation works in close partnership with its donors, with more than 1,000 separate charitable funds established for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. It also serves as a major civic leader, think tank and advocacy organization, commissioning research into the most critical issues of our time and helping to shape public policy designed to advance opportunity for everyone in Greater Boston. The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), a consulting unit of the Foundation, designs and implements customized philanthropic strategies for families, foundations and corporations around the globe. For more information about the Boston Foundation and TPI, visit tbf.orgor call 617-338-1700.

Bellwether Education Partners is a national nonprofit focused on dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved children. We do this by helping education organizations accelerate their impact and by working to improve policy and practice. Bellwether envisions a world in which race, ethnicity, and income no longer predict opportunities for students, and the American education system affords all individuals the ability to determine their own path and lead a productive and fulfilling life. Our work focuses on five service areas: policy analysis and research; strategy and growth planning; organizational effectiveness and efficiency; implementation support; and educational program evaluation. We believe that the only way to ensure all children have access to a high-quality education is to take a holistic approach by changing field-level policies and perceptions while strengthening and supporting individual organizations. Since many of the challenges organizations face are complex, they require multiple perspectives and areas of expertise. Through our integrated offerings, we provide comprehensive, coherent, and lasting solutions to education’s most long-standing and complicated problems.