SCHOOLS REFORM : PROCEEDING DESPITE ALL

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School reform will happen — in Boston. It is already happening, quietly, surely. Statewide, not so sure. Issues of curriculum, funding, and school innovation divide in several directions. But let’s look first at Boston.

Last year, few could have predicted that Boston school reform would proceed at all. Mayoral candidate John Connolly made “school transformation” his big issue. As schools are by far the largest budget item in Boston, and school parents the largest identifiable city-wide interest, Connolly’s choice of issue seemed a sure winner. It wasn’t, because Boston’s schools aren’t a single interest group. It’s administrators, teachers, custodians, parents, school buses, a school construction authority, and several types of schools dictated by State Law. The complexity of school interests sliced Connolly every which way, and he lost.

The teachers’ unuon badly misplayed its part in the Mayor campaign. The smart move would have been to endorse Connolly — for maing education his key issue and thereby gaining an inside position in the next mayor’s school policy discussion. Instead, the union backed two candidates who lost in the primary; only on election morning of the Final did it send out an endorsement of Marty Walsh, who, being a charter school board member, the union had not much wanted.

The Mayor has said very little about schools, but he did allocate the school department a four percent increase in funds; and Walsh’s two appointees to the School Committee have voted “yes” to three significant steps taken by John McDonough, the “interim superintendent” who doesn’t look like a reformer but is..

What are these three steps ? First, layng off about 100 central office administrators. Second, giving each Boston school principal full authority to hire, or replace every member of his teaching and support staff. Third, using public transportation — the T — to bring seventh and eighth grade studebts to school, thereby saving money (and acquiring a back door budget increase, as the T has agreed to transport students at its own cost) and somewhat lessening the impact of labor wars between school bus drivers and the company they work for (and who can forget the wildcat strike last Fall that stranded so many students for an entire school day ?)

These are significant reforms. Giving school principals complete hiring and replacement power changes the entire character of the principals’ job. No longer is she simply a high level monitor and a scapegoat for bad performance, now she can demand performance and see that it is given her. Using the T to transport students saves tens of millions of dollars that can instead be allocated to classrooms. Eliminating central office positions moves the burden of performance to the actual school where learning is demanded.

All of this is being put in place — though some say it’s not happening as thoroughly as McDonough’s office claims — by a man who speaks softly and looks even softer; a man who makes everyone involved feel liked and wanted even as he puts his very transforming agenda into place inch by inch.. Where John Connolly seemed to run at the school system like Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan hill, John McDonough gets every hill he faces to be on his side.

Example :

At the March 26th Budget vote, after two hours of “public comment” by parents and advocates enraged by the proposal to use the T to transport seventh and eighth graders — and with teachers’ union president Richard Stutman sitting grimly in the audience — the School Committee voted unanimously to do that and to approve McDonough’s staffing autonomy for school principals. “Shame on you !” shouted one activist, who then stormed out of the room.

McDonough’s response ? In that soft white-haired voice of his he applauded the parents and activists : “You’re the most involved parents I’ve seen in forty years,” he told them. “You get it.”

Yep.

McDonough is also preparing his schools for the newly adopted PARCC tests (PARCC stands for “partnership for assessment of readiness for college, a state-based initiative that will be ready for the 2014-15 school year) and is implementing the Common Core curriculum standards that have of late generated some controversy. No one that I am aware of is trying to stop him.

The controversy now attaching to the Common Core initiative is acting out chiefly at the State House. It comes chiefly by right wing Republicans who object to nation-wide anything, much less national education standards; some teacher groups are also critical. These do not like the significant instruction changes that common core standards entai, and they especially dislike that Common Core’s testing tends to dominate classroom instruction. I find these objections anecdotal only. Change is always hard for micro-managed institutions.

In Boston, much of the rancor about school change has come and gone. “We have had some difficult conversations,’ says McDonough, in his humble way. “Change is difficult.” But as he summed up the March 26th Budget meeting, “This is not about public schools versus charter schools. it’s about making all schools better.”

McDonough cannot have been happy to see Orchard Gardens school princiopal Anthony Bott quit his job for the coming year, for Bott has been one of the Boston system’s most successful turn-around leaders. Bott’s leaving has given McDonough’s critics — who think he’s not acting quickly enough, or comprehensively, to change how the school system operates. Nor could McDonough have been thrilled to see John Connolly reappear, after months of silence, at April 9th’s School Committee meeting, on behalf of his fellow Trotter School’s parents, who, as Connolly eloquently told the Committee, are upset about losing their Families Engagement Co-ordinator, a Mr. Alward, who, as Connolly said, “makes the school work.”

Mr. Alward is one of the 230-odd school personnel being cut in this year’s department budget — cuts that McDonough said “involved trade offs.” Schools are losing coaches, teacher aides, even, at the Curley K Through 8, a school nurse. And several families engagement co-ordinators. Few of these have available a spokesman as eloquent — or powerful — as an almost Mayor. In Connolly’s words : “We’re a turnaound school, the Trotter,” he said. Level four to level one. We’re now one of the best schools in the city, we knock the socks off those tests. That’s not going to happen if can’t keep families engaged — if we whittle away what works !”

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Connolly is only the best known, though probably the most moving speaker, of the many Boston School parents who are angry about the layoffs of field personnel. As Heshan Weeramuni, of the Curley School parents group, puts it, “we’re losing school staff even as we’re gaining more students.”

Weeranmuni isn’t that impressed with the four percent budget increase provided by Mayor Walsh. “Over the years, as we’ve lost Federal funds and thus State funds,” he says,” we’ve actually seen a ten percent cut in funding, not an increase.

Weeramuni is active with a Boston school parents group led by karen Kast of Roslindale, who worked the Mayor election for candidate Rob Consalvo and, after Consalvo was eliminated, managed City Council candidate Marty Keogh’s campaign. Kast is an imaginative advocate for what parents call “full funding.” A “$ 61 million bake sale” that she helped organize recently drew much attention, as it took place on the back side of City hall, across the street from iconic Faneuil hall.

Kast is a leader in Boston Truth, a parents-and-teachers coalition militantly opposed to state legislation increasing the number of charter schools authorized in Massachusetts. A bill to do that sits stalled (as of this writing) in the legislatiure’s Joint Committee on Education, chaired by Wellesley State Rep Alice Peisch and by Jamaica Plain’s State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz. The proposal — submitted by Boston State Rep Russell Holmes — seems unlikely to be enacted in its present form. Nor should it be. Titled “An Act To Further Narrow the Achievement Gap,” the bill calls for increasing the number of charter schools in “under-performing districts” — but not elsewhere. Yet the principals of under-performing schools get, by this legislation, exactly the powers that John McDonough has already established in Boston.

The bill also proposes a reimbursement formula, compernsation to Boston for students who choose to go to the additional charters, of IRS-like complexity.

For Boston, the proposed bill is otiose in one respect, contradictory in the other : why give a principal power to create the school that she wants, only to take away the effect of that power by putting more charter schools in competition ? Either the legislation wants under-performing school districts to do better, or it wants them to lose students. Which is it ?

I’m not sure the State’s administrators can answer that question. Certainly their take-over of two under-performing Boston schools, the Holland and the Dever, after these schools had already undergone a full year and more of McDonough-led “turn-around,’ suggets that the proverbial one hand doesn’t know what the other is up to.

Almost all of the State’s GOP, and many Democrats too, want more charter schools. That in itself is not a bad idea. The greater the availability and diversity of innovative schools, the better it should be for all the public schools. But many who advocate the loudest for more charter schools do so as a means of breaking the power of teachers’ unions. This cannot be a goal of education policy. Of course, schools do not exist to give jobs to teachers; still, teachers, there are; and the job we ask them to do is a difficult one, and vital. Union member teachers earn a good living; what benefit do we think we get if we block teachers from earning more ? Certainly not an economic benefit, and proabbly not an educational one. And if, as is true, the teachers in charter schools need not be union members, and thus cost less, is that a good ? I have never been convinced that asking workers to earn less is a benefit to anbody in any way.

If our state is to expand the allowed number of charter schools, it must be done generally — never only in “under performimg” districts, for that is to guarantee, even aggravate, their under-performance — and the expansion must benefit the performance of all schools. A diversity of school types must lead to the adoption of best practices, as these are experimented with; to an optimum length of school day; to courses beyond the Common Core basics : courses in civics, history, philosophy, the arts, sports, and more, such as emotional education and foreign languages. (One ‘Best practice’ that I like a lot is ‘dual language learning,’ in which students are schooled, daily and all day long, in English and another language. Chinese, French, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic — you name it.) And all of this must become the mission of all schools, of whatever type.

Until the legislature can forge an achievement gap-narrowing bill that sets forth a path to this end, without detours into special interest pleading, the Joint Committee on education should defer to act. Flawed legislation is always hard to repair, especially enactments that misdirect an institution as flex-averse as public education.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

BOSTON SCHOOLS : IS FUNDING EVERYTHING, SCHOOL POLICY NOTHING ?

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^ stalling on charter schools, ostensibly because the Federal $$$ aren’t coming : St Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz

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It pains me to read news recently that the chief reason why Massachusetts got busy creating charter schools was that 250,000,000 Federal dollars was at stake. I had thought that the creation of charters — schools privately run but publicly funded — was a matter of policy, not purchase. But now we read that bills in the legislature to expand the number of charter schools allowed is stalling, not because the policy has changed but because the Federal dollars aren’t there any more.

At the outset of President Obama’s first term, the education bureaucracy was all het up about “race to the top” and such like programs to improve student achievement. Money was gushing, and so were expectations. Now the money is heaving dry, and expectations have taken a skeptical swerve. The talk now is of “taking resources away from standard schoolS,” not of “improving achievement.”

You would think that “Taking resources away from standard schools” is teacher-speak for : the teachers’ union’s next contract won’t have a pay raise equal to raises granted the latest police or Firemen’s union contract. Right now, it doesn’t mean that. Mayor Walsh has added 39.6 million dollars to this year’s Boston Public Schools budget. Most of it will go to fund teachers’ pay raises. There will some millions left over. So, what does the phrase “taking resources away” mean now ? Probably just that the increased dollars won’t be coming from Washington. they’ll be raised locally. And that means that some other local aid funded need will have to make do with less.

Such is indeed the talk. In the Governor election going on in Massachusetts right now, all the talk is of local aid : increasing it; releasing 100 million dollars of it already collected but held; increasing it again. Candidates running for the State legislature or Senate all talk of local aid needs. The Department of Children & Families is in crisis; State transportation repairs and service upgrades cry out for attention; drivers’ licences for undocumented immigrants must be done. All these get mentioned ; but the big talk is, local aid, local aid, more local aid. You hear it whether the speaker is a Democrat or a Republican. Local aid now; the other matters can wait.

But education can’t wait. kids grow up. They graduate from grade to grade. Time delayed cannot be made good. Charter school waiting lists grow bigger, and the once ready Federal money river no longer flows into them. Thus we hear more of the same old arguments that were adduced at the outset for why charter schools shouldn’t be : they winnow their students, eliminating those with discipline problems and unwillingness to adapt; they don’t serve English language learners; they expel kids who don’t shape up academically; they impose rigid discipline.

And so they do. Charter schools were meant to be an alternative to standard public schools, not simply public schools with a new name. If charter schools do not do the job they were intended to do — significantly improve student achievement — they shouldn’t be funded, whether the Federal money is at hand or not. And if charter schools do do what they were intended as, they should be funded regardless of money from Washington. Meanwhile, to look at how rapidly enrollment has climbed, it seems that charter schools have been a smashing success :

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Legislation to increase the number of charters being stalled now — the chief staller being Boston State senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, who serves on the senate Education Committee — those that do exist are kind of on their own, to prove their worth. Charter parents will have to speak out; to organize. Democrats for Education Reform, the local chapter of a nationwide group deployed to power up the alternative-schools constituency, will have to get talking. My own strong belief is that education in America needed badly to reshape itself enormously, to conform to the new workplace, new jobs, new technology and new communities of competitive collaboration. If schools exist to do anything, it’s to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow (and for citizenship : but that’s a more traditional matter and doesn’t require an entire re-think). The best way to get schools shaped for that end is to try out many different shapes — school day lengths, curriculum choices, and out-of-school after-work — and see which one or ones meet the challenge. Charters, partnerships, collaborations, and, yes, standard public schools all have a seat at this particular table, and all should be set upon the task.

Did I mention curricula ? The battle is raging already to reject the national education establishment’s “common core” as being too difficult for children to master and too narrowly tested. Myself, having read through the “common core proposal, I find it a trope, a slice of common sense. Every society with schools at all has had a common core curriculum; it’s how that society prepares its children for the jobs it offers. this was as true of Rome in year 300 A.D. as of western Europe in year 1090 A.D. and 1500 A.D., and it was the basis of the New England School Law of 1634. Children must learn a common basic curriculum in order to do the jobs that will need to hire them; and to be good citizens. Is it difficult ? It always was. Life, too, is difficult. Tears come to one’s eyes as well as joy.

Kids can manage. They really can. as for testing, well : every job that a student is given as an employee is a test, believe me. So don’t complain; just do it. And please, don’t use lack of money as an excuse not to.

Time for Liam Kerr, Richard Stutman, Citizens for Public Schools, and Stand For Children to loosen up, set the past behind,and re-imagine the teaching of knowledge to children grasping at it.

As for teacher pay and standard school budgets, in Boston these look paid for — this year. After that, a lot depends on who the next School Superintendent will be. The “search committee” is already on it, but for me, the best choice is John McDonough, the current “interim superintendent,’ who says he doesn’t want to be considered for the permanent job : but whom all sides respect and who can therefore best steer “standard Boston public schools,” troubled schools as well, into the next phase, alongside charters as they are and all manner of experimental school set-ups that innovators may successfully propose — as they surely will, and should.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

THE NEXT BPS SUPERINTENDENT ? JOHN McDONOUGH SHOULD APPLY

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^ the gentle face of an underestimated reformer ? John McDonough just might be he

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Who should be Boston’s next public schools Superintendent ? A recent article in Commonwealth Magazine got me thinking that it should be the man who already IS the ‘super” : John McDonough.

The 40-year BPS employee now holds that job on an interim basis. He has said he won’t apply for the permanent job. He should rethink that decision.

Mayor Walsh’s first budget plans a $ 39.6 million increase for the BPS. Most of that added funding will, however, be devoured by contracted pay increases for BPS teachers. Hardly any money will remain for facilities upgrades, new technologies, an extended school day. The allocation of these increased funds to pay hikes asks an obvious question : is the mission of Boston’s public schools primarily to raise teachers’ pay ?

For that question John McDonough has, says the Commonwealth magazine article, a workable response. If we are to pay teachers top dollar, and spend almost no added funds on anything else in the schools, the least we can insist upon is superior teacher performance. McDonough, says the article, has a strategy : give the principal of every Boston public school autonomy to hire whom he or she wants. He admits that his decision is risky. Because many of the system’s underperforming reachers have tenure, they cannot be fired. If no school principal wnats them they will simply have to be reassigned to something, or (as the Commonwealth story puts it) paid not to teach.

Paying union employees with contractual rights not to work is nothing new. When the nation’s railroads were losing their passenger customers, many railroad workers ended up being paid not to work. But the BPS situation is different : the number of “customers” — school kids — is increasing, not declining. What is wanted is not fewer workers but better workers. In short, the dreaded “performance evaluation” standard that the Boston Teachers Union resists.

It will be difficult enough for McDonough, the quiestest of leaders, to achieve such a huge changer in the culture of BPS work. His insider position might just make all the difference. When I first met him again — I had known him back in the day when I worked for elected school committeemen — on last year’s Mayor campaign, he was sitting at a table in the cafeteria of BTU headquarters, in the company of former BTU president Ed Doherty and current BTU activist Shirley Pedone — both long known by me. Neither Doherty nor Pedone is shy about pushing the entire BTU agenda; but they and McDonough go back a long time, obviously on a friendly basis, as fellow BPS employees. It matters. Difficult it is to imagine an outside superintendent hired by “nationwide search” being so easily casual with BTU activists.

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^ teacher by example : John McDonough at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School

How many BPS bosses as readily liked by BTU activists as McDonough also have the confidence of John Connolly ?  One of Connolly’s campaign themes was to break up the central BPS bureaucracy. Yet, says Commonwealth, “John Connolly, who campaigned to be the education mayor, says he is a big believer in McDonough. ‘John was often the only high-level voice of reason inside BPS,’ Connolly wrote in a December e-mail while away on a post-campaign vacation. ‘He wants to do the right things and he knows BPS inside out. If John is given the backing, he won’t hesitate to clean house and make critical changes that really should happen before the next superintendent is hired.'”

This has already happened, as the Commonwealth article notes, at the John Marshall school on Corona Street in Boston’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood. There an outside non-profit, Unlocking Potential (UP), was brought in to re-think and manage. UP terminated every one of the John Marshall’s employees and hired back only three. All of its new teachers were thus young — some very young. This had several beneficial consequences : ( 1 ) Because the new teachers were young, they were paid less even as BTU members, saving scarce budget money ( 2 ) Because the school day was longer, it engaged more of the students’ day to day life ( 3 ) because the teachers were so young, their method and technological awareness were up to date. (This latter is something that I have previously opined in favor of : that teachers of skills and skill thinking should be as young and new to teaching as possible, not the other way around.) Not surprisingly, a much higher percentage of John Marshall students — of whom 99 % are of color — achieved high marks. As for the teachers who were displaced, some found teaching jobs elsewhere, some took other work within the system, others left teaching entirely.

McDonough says that he will not allow displaced teachers to go unused. “There’s plenty of work within our system,” he told Commonwelath. Yet he knows that his principals’ autonomy decision makes teacher tenure — a core union contract principle — look an obstacle. The BTU won’t allow tenure to be put at risk in future contracts ; but McDonough, and only he, may just be able to negotiate a buy-out of some tenure, or a reclassification, so that tenure won’t force young, exciting, cutting edge teachers into not being rehired — as it famously already has done. I’m not bullish that a superintendent outside-hired could get this work rule reform done at all.

It’s going to be a difficult enough task even for John McDonough’s soft-spoken, career-long determination. As John Connolly remarked to Commonwealth, “‘That said, I am always wary of BPS statements about changes to teacher hiring and placement rules, timelines, and policy. There is so much off-the-radar deal making and just plain skirting of the rules behind the scenes that undermine supposed changes. In sum, I won’t believe anything has changed until I see it actually happening’.”

Connolly’s skepticism is warranted. The BTU opposes many of the changes that have already happened, much less those proposed. I see no sign, either, that Mayor Walsh wants a difficult enough City budget made even more difficult by any kind of fight with the BTU. At best, an outside hire will need much time just to learn what’s going on. at worst, she might stumble negligently into a huge avoidable fight. That won’t happen with McDonough at the helm.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

BOSTON : SCHOOL REFORM SLICED DICED AND…BLAND ?

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^ curriculum revolutionary : Irnerius of Bologna (1050-1125), who introduced new studies of law and so won the competition to draw students to his lectures

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“Today’s lesson, boys and girls, is ‘school reform : its history, its heroes, and its opponents.”

Thus sayeth the teacher. This shall be Part One of a Two-part course. Let the lecture begin :

No societal institution is harder to reform than schools. it has always been so. To take one huge example, when Greek began to be studied by European scholars in the 13th Century, its introduction, as a taught course, into the universities of that day — which taught all in Latin only — occasioned actual riots. Another example : teachers in medieval Europe were independent contractors, competing with each other (often viciously) for students (and student fees) — not collegial at all. Witness the revolutionary curriculum innovations — and career — of Irnerius of Bologna. Only when the advantages of coming together as a faculty showed themselves fatal to independent teachers seeking students did the faculty, collegial system become the standard. It took almost 300 years to make the point. One thing did NOT change : teachers worked on the margins, never far from wipe-out. If students did not sign up for their lectures, their teaching career ended. Something like that is still the case. Courses that attract too few students to pay the teacher’s salary get dropped from the curriculum.

You will of course notice that I am talking about “higher’ education. The situation with primary education was different and still is. Students in primary school learn the basics. These have hardly changed at all since Roman days — because the basics of civilization scarcely change. What does cahnge is the WAY in which the basics are taught, and, again, changes in method have come about only with much controversy and almost always far too late. Thus it is no great surprise to see that, today, in Boston, school reform movements meet big resistance, even counter-reformation.

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^ Cassiodorus (ca 485-585), the Arne Duncan of his day, as chief aide to Theodoric the Great and later, educational reformer. When he retired, his library of over 2200 books stocked a monastic school that he founded on his estate at Vivarium, near Catanzaro in the “boot” of Italy.

There have always been four major constituencies on the battlefield of school reform : parents; students; teachers; employers. it was so in Roman times — but the Roman system was a ducal, bureaucratic one in which schools prepared for only one career : oratory in the senate, oratory as a proctor (litigating lawyer), oratory in imperial administration. Parents fought to get their brightest children into a school well connected to imperial circles; teachers fought to get the imperial approval without which they could not teach in an imperially sanctioned school; students were force-fed and even beaten, learning by rote, marine-drill-sergeanted into a mindset sufficiently bureaucratic to win them a coveted post in the imperial or Senatorial circle. (if you want to taste something of the flavor of late Roman schools, read chapters 3 through 6 of Augustine’s CONFESSIONS.) To sum up ; in the Roman world, the employer entirely dictated what the school would teach, to whom, and how.

Is it thus so odd that today, in Boston, employers want a major say in how the City’s schools teach future employees ? Is it not a huge concern of theirs, that graduating students be able to meet the entry-level prerequisites, at least, of their hiring ? Kids do not graduate from twelve years of primary and secondary schooling just for graduating’s sake. They graduate to employment. Some may, it is true, go into the military — where they will be trained as forcefully as the Roman world trained its legions. A few may move directly to entrepreneurship. but for 80 to 90 percent of graduating students, employment awaits, just as it awaited the graduates of Roman academies.

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^ John Dewey : “learn by doing” — implanting the culture of apprenticeship learning into school methodology

As for employers dominating, even owning our schools, keep in mind that imperial or Senatorial patronage funded and staffed all the Roman world’s schools. Today we would not accord employers such dominance of our schools, partly because we have thousands of varying employers where Rome had only one. But we cannot, and should not, decry substantial employer involvement in the content and method of what our schools teach. We should invite it.

Our schools also teach one other major ethical learning : citizenship. In Rome, citizenship belonged to all, and it bestowed important rights. But citizenship imposes duties as well, and so long as the Roman world held together its schools taught what they taught not just as skills necessary to imperial employment but also as a responsibility of citizenship. The two obligations were not separate. In our world and our schools, citizenship is not so obviously an integral part of employment knowledge. It involves knowing history, the law, cultural diversity, tolerance, inquiry, participation in politics. Yet are employers not concerned that their employees be good citizens ? Young people who cannot accept diversity, or display good manners, or lack social graces, often make poor employees.

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^ Horace Mann : Massachusetts Congressman and education reformer — citizenship / civics as part of a core curriculum

I present this lengthy background as a platform upon which I now offer the education reform plan posted by incoming mayor Marty Walsh. Here it is as posted on his website :

“Marty’s plan is to immediately build on current strengths within Boston Public Schools, and simultaneously develop and implement a long-term strategy based on equity, access, accountability, transparency and collaboration to provide a top-notch education for all of Boston’s children. Success will require taking a hard look at current practice, the political will to make tough, necessary changes, and the collaboration of families, educators, and partners across the city to realize a shared vision.”

“In addition, Marty recognizes the achievement of students with disabilities can be accelerated by participation in inclusion classes with their differently abled peers. The Walsh Administration will continue support for current plans to expand the number of inclusion schools, and will increase support for principals and teachers to learn about co-teaching models, Common Core Standards and differentiating instruction.

“Embrace and Support the Implementation of the Common Core State Standards – The Walsh Administration will ensure each and every school has a plan to integrate the Common Core State Standards into daily instruction, prepare teachers to teach the standards, and help students demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

“Selecting the next superintendent is one of the most important decisions facing the new administration. It is critical that the superintendent fully embraces the Mayor’s vision and is committed to its success.

“Maintain a Mayoral-Appointed School Committee – Marty supports an appointed school committee. This is the best way to ensure a body that fully reflects all the stakeholders in quality public education, including those with direct experience providing education, and those who understand the importance of prioritizing the needs of the whole child in an urban school setting.

“Central office departments will be redesigned into streamlined cross-functional units and held accountable for how well they provide support and service to schools. School supervisors will closely monitor schools in order to know which school leaders to support, which to push, and which to grant autonomy so that each and every Boston Public School is among the very best schools in Massachusetts.

“The Walsh Administration will focus on “deepening the bench” of potential school leaders who know how to work with teachers to improve instructional practices tied to the Common Core State Standards.

“Strong partnerships with local colleges and universities, and support for accelerated programs that prepare teachers for urban schools, such as those offered at the University of Massachusetts Boston, will be developed to supply qualified candidates. Systems and incentive will be implemented to retain strong principal and teacher leaders with appropriate compensation.

“The Walsh Administration will be aggressive in working with federal elected officials and agencies, the Massachusetts State House, and corporate and non-profit partners to increase revenues for targeted programs.”

— so sasys Marty Walsh, officially.

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^B George Perry, Jeri Robinson, and John Barros — Walsh’s Schools team. Is there a Cassiodorus in this triad ? Or just smiling faces ?

The Walsh plan has aroused plenty of opposition from anti-Common Core advocates. (Even though Massachusetts school standards are stronger than Common Core, which is thus irrelevant to Boston schools.) it also disappoints many who want a much more comprehensive overhaul of Boston Public School methods, curriculum, student assignment, and partnering. For me, the plan’s face is its blandness. It is cardboard. It avoids all of the difficult issues. It hardly mentions the most controversial or necessary. you won’t find in it the terms ’employer,’ “charter school,” “teacher evaluation,” “teacher selection,” “school competition.” It really is not a plan for reform at all. What I take from it is a message that we should TALK about reform. This, the City is doing. But then what ?

I find especially unfortunate the plan’s entire avoidance of competition. I know of no dynamic school system in which competition between schools — between teachers within those schools — was not an integral condition. Uncompetitive schools teach uncontroversial knowledge. Competition can be imposed upon schools and teachers only by employers — in the Roman world, the Emperor demanded, and that WAS the competition — or by the students and their parents, who, as in Abelard’s Paris and in the teaching city that was contemporary Bologna — pay their teaching fees to the best teachers. The competition then — years 1080 to about 1270 — was brutal, but knowledge advanced daringly and hugely. (we don’t call it “the Renaissance of the 12th Century” for nothing.) Much of the advance in knowledge was brought into those schools by independent researchers, often working in Muslim lands. The same is true today. Innovation Districts and their collaborative competitors are our era’s version of 12th Century’s wandering researchers. They and their knowledge, gathered from everywhere, should inform, revive, reconstitute our City’s public schools — curriculum, evaluation and pay, responsiveness to a rapidly evolving world of employers.

Or we can choose stagnation, blandness, and loss of the innovative daring that made Boston so different a city for so long.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

Tomorrow : the teacher and his or her career in a system committed tyo innovation, citizenship, and employment.

#MAPOLI : BAKER TAKES A RIGHT TURN…AND OTHER VEERINGS

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the would be Governor stoops for a spot of Tea : Karyn Polito to be Charlie Baker;s running mate

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A number of high-visibility Massachusetts pols did the attention-getting unexpected today. Perhaps the biggest such event of the day, however, was not a happy move and had the feeling of a surrender  : Charlie Baker, who almost certainly will be the Republican nominee for Governor next year, anointed one Karyn Polito as his Lieutenant Governor sidekick.

Who IS Karyn Polito ? A former State Representative from Shrewsbury and the 2010 Republican candidate for Treasurer. And why her ? It is speculated that Baker chose her because ( 1 ) Baker lost women voters in the 2010 Governor election by 24 points and ( 2 ) she is popular with the Worcester County Tea folks. As I wrote three days ago, Polito recently spoke at an event on the South Shore at which the featured guest was one Allen West, a stridently contemptuous, Tea party favorite and one-term (defeated) Florida Congressman. Polito is said to have praised West in her own speech at that event. That would be reason enough to wonder why Baker would link his candidacy to Polito, who served as campaign chair for Michael Sullivan’s right-wing US Senator campaign earlier this year. Sullivan’s opposition to marriage equality (and of course to transgender civil rights) mirrored Polito’s own recent legislative record. (Baker’s campaign says tat Polito has since come around and now shares his views on social issues.)

All of this represents a huge shift for Baker, who in 2010 chose as his running mate Richard Tisei, an openly gay State Senator who vigorously supports lifestyle civil rights — indeed, he was the original legaislative sponsor of the transgender rights bill that was enacted as law last year. As it happens, Polito, too, has made her own huge shift. During the Romney years she was — like almost all Massachusetts Republicans — strongly pro-choice and supportive of marriage equality. Of course we all know what Mitt Romney did in the years since he left he Massachusetts governorship. Polito has simply followed his example, bowing her reformist record to the voices who want to repeal all reform.

Such is the politician whom Baker has chosen as his symbol this campaign cycle : a gravatar of reaction, a face of opposition to nearly everything the GOP has stood for in Massachusetts since it was founded. Well might I call the Baker-Polito ticket “anti-Republican.”

Baker had other options. He could have chosen State Representative Geoff Diehl, a social progressive who spearheads the “Tank the Gas Tax” movement. He might have gone really bold and picked Pamela Julian, leader of the League of Women Voters and a force in Boston. Elizabeth Childs of Brookline was a possibility. I would have preferred any of these.

Will this ticket likely succeed with Massachusetts voters ? As hardly anybody votes for a Lieutenant Governor, in the end it probably won’t matter to anyone who isn’t a political junkie. But it should. A successful candidacy gives the angry anti’s of the Tea party a credibility that right now they thankfully lack.

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^ John Connolly as WHAT ? Mayor Walsh’s new school superintendent ? Not damn likely

No sooner had I digested this swig of political castor oil than news came that, in an interview by radio host Jim Braude, Mayor-elect Marty Walsh said that he “absolutely do(es) not rule out asking John Connolly to be his new superintendent of schools.”

WTF ? Immediately came the waves of outcry from the teachers union activists, the Diane Ravitch groupies, and the opponents of charter schools and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. That was to be expected. But I too, a supporter of Connolly and his “school transformation” vision, found the suggestion a red herring — or maybe a sly nick. Connolly is screwed by this knee-chop remark no matter how he responds — IF he does respond. His best response being to not respond at all. Clearly John Connolly has a ton of career options better than the tainted biscuit that Walsh so suavely served up.

Whoever agrees to be Mayor Walsh’s superintendant of schools is bound to disappoint almost everyone : school parents wanting big reform, the Teachers Union opposing every reform except its own politically unlikely agenda, the administrators, principals, kids — you name it. Boston’s public schools need significant reconfiguration; almost any new superintendent won’t be able to get it done. Why should John Connolly descend into that vortex ?

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^ Guess who is heading to Israel as a guest of the ADL ? Yup, Council Felix G. Arroyo.

No sooner had I digested the Connolly suggestion than Councillor Felix G. Arroyo announced that he is visiting Israel next week as a guest of the Anti-Defamation League. This surprised me. Most politicians allied with the Labor Left — and Arroyo is definitely there — are supporters of the Palestinians, not the ADL. So what is up ? Politicians make trips to Israel when they have high officer in mind. Might Felix G. Arroyo be thinking of running for Lieutenant Governor ? It would make sense. He would enhance the Democratic ticket no matter which of the four likely hopefuls becomes the nominee. He’d be an inspired choice. Is Arroyo on it ?

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

NOTE : this is article was updated December 5, 2013 at 8:00 am.

BOSTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS : WHAT NEXT FOR REFORM ?

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^ Boston school reformer Mary Tamer : Marty Walsh needs to reappoint her

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Lawrence Harmon’s column in today’s Globe tweaked me to write once more about the prospects for school upgrade in Boston. My last column on this topic appeared well before the Mayor election. Much has happened since, and not just the selection of a new Mayor. School reform occupies center stage nationwide, as parents, students, and the job market push for — insist upon — huge changes in how we educate children, how rigorously, and to what purpose.

Harmon focuses on the City’s teacher evaluations, which he finds very suspiciously upbeat. 93 percent of teachers, he writes, land “in the exemplary and proficient categories on a new teacher-evaluation system.” He also notes that almost every BPS principal rated high. “Yet,” he goes on, “about two thirds of the city’s schools rank in the bottom 20 percent statewide based on student test data.”

He asks, “what is going on here ?” A few sentences later comes an answer : “It suggests that good teachers are unable to compensate for poverty, social ills, non-native English status, and other difficulties associated with urban schools.”

The suggestion rings true. Harmon says that it should not matter, that just as the Boston Police do not settle for the high rate of crime in certain neighborhoods but attack it head-on, so should the schools. No doubt that Harmon is right. But teachers aren’t a police force. Boston’s police patrol 24/7 ; teachers teach only seven hours a day, five days a week. Boston school children live by far the most of their day with someone other than their teachers.

I agree that the new teacher evaluations disservice everyone, the teachers included. No one working on any job does it perfectly. All of us can improve; all should try to do so. To have value, an evaluation system should do what my Phillips Andover American History teacher did ; “no one in this course will get an A,” he said, “because none of you can master the subject that well.” The best that anyone could do, he told us, was a B. My American history teacher was pressing the point that what he would be teaching us really, really mattered. Being the best teacher that one can be matters even more.

Harmon also quotes school committee member Mary Tamer at length, on the evaluation issue — especially of Boston Public school administrators. Her rigor and critique should be cherished by a system dedicated to improving itself.

That said, as I see it the big problem in urban public schools is not the competence of teachers or principals. The problem lies elsewhere, most often at home. If children are sent to school without a healthy breakfast; if they come from homes in dysfunction or commotion; if they cannot negotiate the English language; if they are prey to peer pressures, from bad decisions to worse; if at home no one ever reads to them, challenges them intellectually, engages their curiosity — if any or all of these home situations devils every part of a child’s life outside school, what is his life IN school likely to be ? Peer pressure becomes even more intense at school.

The home lives that I listed in the previous sentence come to school on the backs of all too many kids. Your kid may have the solidest home life in the neighborhood ,and it is not going to be enough, confronted as it will be in school itself by kids from problemed homes. A very few, remarkable kids can work through such peer pressure. A few can triumph even over their own home badness. But how many ? And there isn’t much that a teacher can do about it. Most Boston public school teachers I have known can rescue many kids from the badness; what about the others ? It cannot be all on the teachers.

School reform begins at home. If the parents or guardians aren’t fully committed to see that their kids triumph intellectually, morally, physically, and emotionally, and if they cannot rely on their neighbors to do the same with their own kids, urban public schools are going to continue to under-perform even with miracle men as teachers.

It is this time that we evaluate the parents and guardians. And time too that we expect no better of Boston public school kids than public school parents put into it.

Frankly if I were a Boston public school parent, I would grow grim about the certainty that my kid(s) will find it almost impossible to get that cutting-edge technology job — or even an entry level tech-competent position — because I am failing, my neighbor is failing, and thus the public schools are failing, too, because my neighbors and I aren’t demanding that school concentrate on testing, teaching, cajoling, piquing every child in class to work to the next level, to experiment, to imagine, and to really, really THINK. None of which my school can succeed at because too much class time is spent getting hepped-up kids to calm down, into some sort of order, into concentration.

No wonder that diligent parents choose charter schools if they can make the cut. But that too is not the answer. The only answer is the community-wide, full-metal jacket — much more than the competence of teachers and principals evaluated without compromise — that I have outlined. Anything less well work only partly, leaving some parents unsatisfied and some children unready for tomorrow’s mercilessly experimental jobs.

One final question : do you have any evidence that the new Mayor will spur a school reform as vast as the effort i have outlined ? I sure don’t. The voters of Boston already passed judgment on how much school reform they wanted. Mary Tamer supported John Connolly, as did I, for much the same reason: school reform cannot be piecemeal. Yet piecemeal it looks now to be. There will be some changes. More teachers and principals will be people of color. The school day will lengthen. Trade and technology curricula will expand, in partnership with universities, labor unions, and businesses. Some children will definitely benefit, somewhat. I doubt it will be anything like enough; yet I am willing to be proved wrong.

Harmon suggests in his column that Mayor Walsh should reappoint Tamer, whose term is at end. “Walsh…needs to hear strong, independent voices,” writes Harmon, “as he tackles the job of improving schools.” I agree.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

BOSTON MAYOR : SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS SEND A MESSAGE

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^ no school bus today for 57,000 Boston public school kids

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Marty Walsh must be thinking the election gods have cursed him. On the very morning that he has two important endorsements to announce, the Boston school bus Drivers’ Union stages a walkout and totally steals everybody’s attention. And who is the candidate of school transformation ? To whom parents turn this morning for guidance ? John Connolly. And at his facebook page they find it, comprehensive and helpful.

Yes, Marty Walsh put out a statement condemning the walkout. Of course he did. But so did John Connolly. and while Walsh’s statement said what need saying, Connolly’s added a vision as well as a reason for condemning the walkout. For Walsh, it’s “let’s get back to the task at hand.” For Connolly, it’s “let’s get back to the task at hand because, given the huge achievement gap in our schools, we must do it.” (emphasis added)

Yes, the job that you signed up to do, you need to do. But even more so, there should be a reason, a goal, a mission, that motivates you to do that job. Score a big one for John Connolly.

The School Bus drivers’ walkout really hurts Walsh. His message has been, “look, I’m a union guy, the union folks trust me, they will listen to me.” Maybe some of them will. More likely is that union workers are supporting Walsh not for his sake but for theirs. Today’s job action makes that point clearly enough — as if the huge BPPA arbitration award hadn’t already made it. And what was the huge labor issue that led to the drivers’ work stoppage ? Simply that they object to a GPS mobile application that enables school parents to track a school bus in real time.

For THAT, the drivers disrupt everyone’s day ? Listen, drivers : the rule is that a parent needs to be at her child’s bus stop when the bus arrives, to pick up said child, or else the bus drives off with the child still inside, and then the parent must do a ton of work to find out when the bus will return. If a parent can track that bus in real time, she will be less likely to not be there when the bus arrives at her stop. I don’t think that’s exactly hard for even a driver to figure out.

But enough. The School Bus Drivers not only dinged Marty Walsh badly, they also stole the spotlight from two big endorsements that he received later this morning : Felix Arroyo and John Barros. the Arroyo endorsement was expected. Walsh already has Arroyo’s top advisor, Doug Rubin, guiding him to key parts of Boston’s communities of color. Arroyo’s Dad, Felix D. Arroyo, was a long time ally of Ray Flynn, a candidate from much the same place as Walsh and of much the same support base. (I’ll have more on this subject in a later article.)

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^ John Barros (on the left) : today announces that he supports Marty Walsh for mayor

More surprising is John Barros’ embrace of Walsh. Barros’ education ideas and city vision parallel John Connolly’s almost exactly. So why has he tossed his lot in with Marty Walsh ? I have no hot poop on this issue, but I’m guessing it went something like this :

( 1 ) Barros’ portfolio is education; because Connolly’s theme is education, and his mastery of the issue is so thorough, Barros likely saw no need by Connolly for his advice; whereas with Walsh ? It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the High Schools proposal that Walsh released only two days ago was forged in consultation with Barros. A Walsh administration would have plenty of need for Barros’s education knowledge.
( 2 ) Barros also cares greatly about development of the Dudley Square area. As Walsh’s mantra is the Boston building boom and construction jobs, it would make sense that Barros asked for, and received, specific commitments by Walsh to Barros’s Cape Verdean community that it would get plenty of those construction jobs — and also some construction contracts.

Barros has every right to make the choice he has made. My problem with it is that it undercuts his visionary mission. He has opted for some specific — but small — gains now rather than taking the large, long-term, transforming view with Connolly : a vision that he advocated passionately at numerous Forums. Barros had better hope that he can impart to Marty Walsh and his core advisors some part of the long view that for months he advocated.

If not, he has contradicted himself.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

BOSTON MAYOR RACE : EDUCATION WILL PLAY A HUGE PART, AND THAT MEANS…

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^ John Connolly : says he’s the “education Mayor.”

The big talk in this year’s 12-candidate Boston Mayor race is education. Sure, there’s much heat being spoken of casinos, griping about traffic — especially in the new Seaport District and in Charlestown — and alarm at what candidate Marty Walsh calls a “heroin epidemic in the city.” Still, the really big talk is about education : what to do, to improve all Boston schools, thus to graduate a work-force capable of doing the highly technologized jobs on offer at most Boston companies ?

It’s the education issue that has raised candidate John Connolly to the top in recent poll. It’s also John Connolly who has lifted the education issue to peak pitch. He was the only City Councillor to vote against the current Boston Teachers Union contract because it offered not a minute more of additional school time. Connolly’s campaign slogan is “education Mayor.” Alone of the twelve — so far — he has a slogan that matters.

So, what does the “education Mayor propose ? It’s well worth quoting from the Schools page of his “Ideas for Boston” platform (delivered, let me add, in seven languages including Viet Namese and Albanian).

With regard to extended time school days, Connolly says this :

“A Longer School Day with Full Enrichment — Currently, Boston’s school day is one of the shortest in urban America, leaving hundreds of hours of potential learning time untapped. We must use every strategy available to extend learning time in the Boston Public Schools. Along with more time in school, every child in Boston should have access to science, art, music, social studies, and physical education taught by qualified and talented professionals. I have called for a “Quality Baseline” to establish a list of courses to be offered at every school and the amount of instruction time in each course, in order to guarantee that all students have access to full academic enrichment.

“As Chair of the City Council’s Education Committee, I held hearings on the Boston Teachers Union contract where families and students called for extending the school day. During BPS budget reviews, I advocated for creative partnerships that could extend learning time at our schools. When the new teachers contract came to the Council without a single additional minute of instruction time, I was the only Councilor who voted against it. As mayor, I will negotiate a contract that extends the school day at every Boston Public School.”

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^ BTU President Richard Stutman : showdown coming in this mayor race

That’s pretty detailed, and bold, and sure to confront the Teachers’ Union (BTU), a group often stubborn and no more so than on the variety of school improvement proposals on offer now. The BTU has set itself against all kinds of innovation and experimentation in curricula and staffing. It is likely to not like what Connolly says about assuring teacher excellence :

“Finding and Keeping the Best Teachers and Principals — Excellent principals are the key to excellent teaching: a highly effective school leader can transform a struggling school or keep a strong school on track. Talented and qualified teachers need to be recruited, supported, and retained in the Boston Public Schools. In the City Council, I pushed to pass a resolution supporting state legislation that strengthened teacher and principal evaluations. As mayor, I will establish partnerships with local graduate schools to develop a principal pipeline that can prepare and train new innovative school leaders.

“Empowering School Leaders and Communities — Highly qualified principals and dedicated teachers are professionals who should be encouraged to innovate and improve their practice. Our new evaluation standards can ensure quality across the board, so as mayor I will use every possible strategy to get more funds and decision-making power directly to our schools. Our Pilot, Turnaround, and Innovation Schools have demonstrated that well-resourced schools that have strong leaders and site-based autonomies provide excellent instruction to our children and are highly sought by families. I will work to create more such schools across our city.”

Nowhere in Connolly’s statement on teacher excellence does the term “charter school” occur, but it’s on everyone’ s mind. (And not only in Boston.) The BTU fiercely opposes lifting the current “cap” on the number of charter schools allowed. Chiefly, that’s because teachers in a charter school need not be union members. The Union also dislikes the extended hours and curriculum intensity of charter schools. The BTU has good reason to fear charters. They have a solid record for graduating students much better prepared than in many “traditional” schools. Parents will, if given an option, often choose a charter school.  The charter school movement isn’t waiting; advocacy groups are pushing amendment of state laws to eliminate the “cap.” If they are not already aiding the Connolly campaign with money and advertising, they are strongly rumored to have such plans fully in place and ready to launch.

In today’s Boston there is no room for kids graduating poorly prepared. There’s no economy for them either. Rents all over Boston range from $ 1400 for one-bedroom apartments in the outer neighborhoods to $ 5,000 and up for 2 to 3 bedroom places in the Downtown area. eating out in most parts of Boston rings up a $ 20 tab per person — at least. Parking is expensive. So are the “ultra lounges” that today’s young adults socialize at. Sailing — indeed, all water sports — is not cheap at all. And, most of all, there are no jobs — other than janitorial — in much of Boston that do not assume complete literacy in laptops, i-phones, social media, and website usage. Even a waitress or bartender needs know how to enter an order into a pc or laptop. these are the facts no matter who you are, what your last name is, or what neighborhood you come from.

It will be entirely OK in the new Boston — as it always was — to have a city or state job, or to work for Boston Edison, or to work a bar or restaurant in the “neighborhoods.” Rest assured on that score. In the new economy, however, people traveling this route will be constantly outgunned in elections by the six figure salaries, the technology people, the developers and investors, the CEO’s of education, hospitals, and finance — all of whom are spending aggressively to keep themselves on top and to promote the economy that has made them.

Their spending, and their demands upon employees, assure that no Boston Mayoral candidate is going to get there without an education plan that addresses these facts of modern city life. Right now, John Connolly appears far, far ahead of his competitors on this battlefield.

UPDATE : This compliment to John Connolly does not mean that he’ s home free. Marty Walsh, who seems running a very close second to Connolly, may be a voice for union workers — whom Connolly seems to have cornered on school issues — but as the political voice of Boston’s unions, Walsh credibly tell Boston voters that there’ll be no path to reformed schools that fights the BTU every step of the way.

Others of the twelve Mayoral hopefuls have yet to take hold of the school reform issue. Its time has come. The school busing crisis of 40 years ago — transporting kids all across the City to achieve “racial balance” in a school system which in the late 1960s was highly segregated — has scant provenance in today’s Boston, in which people of color live everywhere in it and are thoroughly respected politically. School reformers’ work now is to move beyond school assignments based on “deseg” guidelines; to rekindle neighborhood schools: flexible, innovative, and committed to the technology world.

Doubtless we will hear useful policy suggestions from at least a few of Walsh’s and Connolly’s rivals, and soon.

—– Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

UPDATE 08/23/13 : the school issue has indeed exploded to prominence thanks to an advocacy group’s statement that it would inject $ 500,000 into John Connolly’s campaign. Connolly had not choice but to reject that money, and the issue faded; but school improvement issue now tops every Mayor candidate’s agenda.