SCHOOLS REFORM : THE BOSTON SCHOOL FOOD SCANDAL

 

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^ answering questions, as here at a recent Mayor Walsh town hall, will be something that Superintendent John McDonough will have to do a lot of, with a big food scandal on the menu

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That the Boston School department’s food operation was seriously flawed, we already knew, well before the Boston Globe’s recent front page story. John Connolly, in last year’s Mayor campaign, made an issue of finding spoiled food in the Department’s food works. The issue didn’t commandeer the campaign because much larger forces rolled into the arena; yet it forecast something we now are paying large attention to, an issue that Mayor Walsh has to deal with whether he likes it or not.

Thanks to a full review of the School Department’s food operation commissioned by interim Superintendent John McDonough, what seemed the entire story was fully bruited. Yet it proved not to be the entire story. Only a few days ago we learned that the Boston school department has eliminated its salad bar, healthy food program from those schools that had it, citing costs. In its place, snacks — the very snacks we don’t want to see kids eating in school (or at all).

Costs matter a lot to John McDonough, who was the Department’s chief financial officer for 20 years, before he became interim superintendent. They do matter. Still, diet seems to me a poor place to economize. Parents already pay for school lunches, if they can. Surely the department can give them value for their money.

McDonough notes that next year’s school budget includes lots of layoffs from the Department’s central administration. These we approve. reports abound of mismanagement, duplication, even no management at all. Problems are reported, then not dealt with. Sometimes it seems as though the managers working under McDonough have but two job goals : first, keep the “super” unaware of the problem and (2) make sure they don’t become news. Surely that mindset will not survive the layoffs, or the story now on every Boston school parent’s reading table. I doubt that the Boston Globe is going to back off at this point, simply because the story is so ripe.

Meanwhile, as my own State Representative tells me he thinks school nutrition is a local, District-level matter, I ask the thirteen good folks on the Boston City Council : can we not pass an ordinance requiring healthy foods at school lunches and banning sugar snacks entirely ? And funding the ordinance, if need be ?

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

BOSTON SCHOOLS : REFORM MOVES FORWARD THROUGH THE BERMS

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^ street theater at City Hall & Faneuil  : the “$ 61 million” BPS parents’ bake sale yesterday

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As just about everyone knows who is involved in it, moving the Boston Public School system forward is almost a combat challenge. Berms galore face the advancing warriors ; severely decreased Federal funding; unfunded State mandates; administrative change, including to staffing and work rules; figuring out a workable relationship between charter schools and “standard schools”; layoffs; teacher salaries. Doubtless I have left out many more.

That said, the army of school reform Is moving forward. Some even of the opponents of reform are actually assisting it by highlighting the difficulties. One such highlight took place yesterday, at the back of Boston City Hall, across the street from Faneuil Hall : a school parents’ “$ 61 million” bake sale.

The $ 61,000,000 they refer to is, as they see it, the dollar amount by which the Boston School department’s FY 2015 budget falls short of what is needed. Superintendent John McDonough agrees that the new school budget has “at the end of the day…only so much revenue,” as he put it at the March 26th Budget hearing. Whether McDonough concurs that the shortfall amounts to $ 61 million, I do not know; there is no disagreement, however, that the budget foes come up short. as McDonough put it, “trade offs” were needed. The trade-offs included eliminating abort 200 position : 100 of them from central school department administration, another 100 or so from the staffs of individual schools.

Hard hit was the Mary Curley K to 8 school in Jamaica Plain ; a school that has, since the late 1970s, occupied a central place in Jamaica Plain’s re-invention as a gentrified neighborhood. Parents of Curley School children cite losing a coach, support personnel, and a school nurse. Other parents, with children at other schools on Boston’s western edge, report the same.

it may well be that McDonough chose to layoff staff in these schools rather than in poorer neighborhoods because he knew that Curley parents would organize and protest loudly, and that those responsible for cutting Federal and state school funding would hear ; and that their protests would matter more to these officials than if he himself were making them. McDonough is as shrewd as they come, and I find nothing that he does to be without well placed purpose. In this case, if his intent is as I suggest, he has planned well indeed.

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^ shrewdest guy in Boston : School Superintendent John McDonough at the “$ 61 million” bake sale

The bake sale drew at least four City Councillors, several Boston teachers, and much media attention. Less attention has been paid to what McDonough has done to school administration. He has made major moves, chiefest of which is to give every Boston school principal full authority to choose every teacher and staff at the school of which he is principal; and to do so by early hiring, when the best teachers are still on offer, and to count diversity as a criterion. The effect on future teacher union work rules can only be revolutionary.

Mayor Walsh, too, has made school improvement moves. his new appointees to the School Committee both voted for McDonough’s propos;las (which were adopted unanimously); and today, at the City Councils’ FY 2015 Budget Hearing, orders presented by the Mayor were adopted unanimously, as follows:

Order # 0637, to borrow $ 72,848,295 for constructing the Dearborn 6-12 STEM/Early college Academy, on Dearborn Street in the Cape Verdean part of Boston : the City’s first new school building in many, many years.

Orders # 0588 through 0593, statements of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, for six more new projects, in West Roxbury, South boston, Jamaica Plain , East Boston, Hyde Park, and the South End.

It would he hard to make a case that thee projects are moving forward without an accompanying commitment by the mayor and City to set these new schools up in any way but under the McDonough reforms.

Now all that is needed is for the State and Federal governments to do their part in funding the goal that McDonough states best : “this isn’t about charter schools or standard schools. It;s about making all schools better. we must cloze the achievement gap.”

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

UPDATE 11.30 PM 04/09/14  : Mary Tamer, who was a Boston School Committeewoman until her term ended on January 5th, questions the viability of the Dearborn STEM project — citing what she calls the “poor results” at the current Dearborn as a turnaround school — and also some other school moves being made around the City. Tamer asks how the City justifies the Dearborn project. It’s a good question deserving an answer that was not given at today’s Council hearing.

BOSTON SCHOOLS : $ 975 MILLION FY 2015 BUDGET APPROVED

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^ bringing Boston Schools quietly but hugely onto a change path : Superintendent John McDonough

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The Boston School Department’s new fiscal year budget was approved last night — unanimously. Superintendent John McDonough now has $ 975,000,000 to allocate — a four percent increase from last year, thanks, as McDonough said at the meeting, to Mayor Walsh’s “generosity” — to the education of some 57,000 children.

You might suppose that a unanimous budget approval would have been quick and easy. It wasn’t. The vote came only after three and a half hours of what Committee Chairman O’Neill called “public comment.” Almost all of this commentary was testified by more or less the same advocacy groups — Boston Truth, Citizens for Public Schools — that have been fighting the entirety of school reforms that Massachusetts has instituted since the Bill Weld years. Charter schools, MCAS, “testing fatigue,” even the race card : all were adduced by a good 30 or so teachers, parents, and advocates seeking — “begging,” aid one witness — full funding for a school system that is making what McDonough called “difficult trade offs.”

The Committee listened respectfully to every witness, many of them reading from prepared statements; a few read the same statement from the same yellow-green sheet of paper. For several months now, I have been listening to these citizens saying pretty much the same thing at rally after rally; I suspect the School Committee has heard it far more than that. Yet the seven committee members were more than ready to accord each witness full graciousness, despite the chants and shouts of a protest going on outside the hearing room, a protest loud enough that it was often hard to hear the speakers.

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^ the unease was momentary : Chairman Michael O’Neill

I doubt that the protest made a favorable impression upon the Committee members. Chairman O’Neill showed his unease. But John McDonough didn’t move an eyelash. Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman at in the second row of the audience, a grin upon his face…

There was other testimony, including from Councillor Tito Jackson, who opposed the Department;s plan to use the T for transporting students. But the Principal of the Jackson-Mann school in Allston approved the plan, even as he noted how strange it felt that one of his teacher staff was in the room testifying against it.

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Parents, two officers of the NAACP, and two school bus drivers testified against McDonough’s T Plan, which envisions 7th and 8th grade students and contemplates 6th graders too. The most convincing witnesses cited safety concerns — convincing because the T isn’t safe in many Boston neighborhoods.

Only because McDonough’s staff researchers presented the Plan’s basis as thoroughly as possible were the Committee’s many questions answered. A compromise was added by Chairman O’Neill ; that the Plan be subject to a safety review to be presented to the Committee in 60 days.

Thus amended, the plan was adopted unanimously.

Many in the audience did not like it one bit.

It soon became apparent that that vote was the big one. The room fell quiet, and there was actually much less to-do on the Budget Vote itself. Committee members made brief comments and then came the unanimous vote.

After which John McDonough summed up the night’s doings. In his voice so quiet, almost without affect, as if there were no passions involved, just dry statistics, he spoke huge policy momentum in a few eloquent sentences:

“For months we have heard from you,” he said. “At hearings we have heard parents’ concerns. You get it. I applaud the involvement of so many passionate parents and teachers.

“This isn’t about charter schools or standard schools. it’s about making all schools better.

Am I happy with this budget ? No, i am not. I wish i could present a different budget. in the end, there is only so much revenue. Trade-offs have to be made. We have to close the achievement gap.

McDonough concluded : “This is NOT a budget cut ! Thanks to the generosity of Mayor Walsh, we have a four percent increase, whole other city departments are getting only one percent.”

Neither McDonough nor anyone else in the room mentioned that almost all of that four percent is slated to pay teachers’ pay raises negotiated in the last union bargain. Obviously not everyone drawing upon the $ 975 million budget is begging.

McDonough is determined to make big changes . I suspect that the teachers union contract is high on the list of changes he seeks. He seems to have the full confidence of the School Committee to do that and more. It will not be simple or quick. It can’t be. Listed prominently in McDonough’s Memorandum — handed out to all at the hearing — is this “priority” item :

“extending hiring autonomy to all schools to hire qualified, diverse candidates early, with $ 6.1 million supporting the success of our early hiring initiative and an additional $ 400,000 to support hiring diversity.”

Even Richard Stutman can’t stop this. it’s in the current teacher contract. Boston is also under court order to increase the diversity of its schools staff.

Yet Stutman has his troops, and they are getting the bulk of the budget’s additional $ 37 million. even as support staff positions are being cut in some schools.

This must change, but even larger changes are coming. Testing will increase; school competition too. Employers insist. So does an overwhelming majority of Massachusetts voters and probably a big majority of Boston voters too.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

UPDATED 03/27/14 at 3.3 PM

SCHOOLS REFORM : THE “ACT TO FURTHER NARROW THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP” — WHAT WE LIKE AND WHAT WE DON’T

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^ stalling the huge reform, maybe for good reason — one hopes ; St Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz

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Much energy from the usual suspects in schools reform matters has decried the exquisitely named “Act to Further Narrow the Achievement Gap” that now sits “stalled” in the legislature’s Education Committee. To find out why, and to assess the opponents’ arguments, one need first to actually read the proposed bill.

Please do so before going on to read my words. Here’s the link : http://www.bostonfoundation.org/uploadedFiles/Sub_Site/web_specials/Race_to_the_Top/An%20Act%20to%20Further%20Close%20the%20Achievement%20Gap%20(1.17.2013).pdf

You will have noted that the proposed new school law is twelve (12) pages long and has twelve (12) sections. Each has its points; some merit more discussion than others. As for the Bill in its entirety, you will have noted its language to be procedural. This is a law for administrators; not a law for teachers.

Were it a law for teachers, it would give some guideline, at least, for what teachers are to teach, and how, and in what spirit. This, the law does not do. It’s a law for superintendents, evaluators, testers, commissioners of education. All of which limits the law’s reform reach and thus details the devils.

The more a law clings to details, the more opposition it will draw. Each detail of an administrative directive inconveniences those who administer. From mastery of the process, they return to being beginners, having to re-learn all over again what it is they are supposed to do. Of course they don’t like it.

It would have been far wiser for the reform bill to set general goals and empower generally. Then the persons affected could work out for themselves how to devil the details; and all such work-out discussions would have given the affected persons personal input into making it work. This new law denies them that. It’s a directive — a tsarist ukase. Little wonder that the established interests are complaining and that key staff are opposing.

That said, the law commits to some very useful tasks :

It grants a superintendent strong power to make the administrative, staffing, and curriculum changes that he or she sees fit, the objective being to improve the performance of so-called “underperforming schools.”

It allows for additional charter schools, above the 140 charters already allowed by MGL c. 71 : but, unwisely, only in districts that fall within under-performance results specified in section 4 of the bill.

It identifies what school performance falls short of stated standards and thereby gives the superintendent a flash point at which to intervene comprehensively.

Let me note right away that everything the reform bill grants to superintendents, John McDonough is already doing as interim superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. This part of the reform law would be difficult for even the most change-averse teachers union to object to.

Much more controversial is Section 4’s creation of an under-performing school district exception to the 140 charter school limit in the current MGL cl. 71, section 89. In the context of the law’s drastic superintendent takeover of under-performing schools, this charter school exception feels like punishment : not only are the personnel of an underperforming school district to face an entire, superintendent make-over of everything they do, including keeping their jobs, but, with the charter school creation possibility, they are put in the position of losing students notwithstanding how they might improve performance under direct superintendent management.

It would be far wiser for the proposed school law to choose one or the other — superintendent takeover, or charter school creation — but not both. Superintendent takeover threatens the jobs of poor teachers; charter school establishment threatens all the affected District’s teachers.

The consequences of this provision in the proposed law leads it almost inevitably to its most objectionable provision : Section 2(g), in which superintendents are given the power, when confronting an under-performing school or district, to alter the compensation, hours, and working conditions of school staff. I don’t think it wise to threaten the pay of the very people whose enthusiastic support the law needs if it’s to work. as for hours of work, everybody agrees the school day should be extended; but i there any reasonable objection to the teachers’ insistence that they be paid for working longer hours ? I think not.

I’m also not a fan of that provision in Section 9 which, in case the Commonwealth is approaching its “net spending cap,” gives preference to charter school providers who operate in more than one municipality. Why so ? No charter school should be like a bank’s branch office, understaffed maybe and offering fewer services. I trust the proposers will explain ?

To sum up : the reform bill contains many valuable provisions, assuming that a bill almost purely administrative is advisable, and that micro-managing the administrative requirements is realistic. The charter school exception, however desirable, makes its entrance on the wrong foot and in the wrong way. it should be the subject of separate legislation and should NOT be tied to under-performance issues and administration. Heck ; if charter schools are good — and I strongly support them — why should only children in under-performing districts have extra access to them ? Has no one learned anything from the Special education experience ? parents, seeing that special need children could claim an individualized curriculum, did everything in their power to get their children designated as special needs so that they too could get an individualized curriculum plan. I can easily see, under this proposed law, parents seeking to have their kids’ school designated as under-performing so that their kids would have a better chance of winning a charter school placement lottery.

This is what happen when you try, by laws, to do too much. You end up with laws that work opposite to the intention, or which can’t get enacted at all because they coalesce many kinds of opposition.

Pare down the bill, make it less administrative, put its page after page of do-this detail — especially the per pupil tuition reimbursement formula ; my goodness me ! — into a regulation, and give the statute some room to flex and develop. Then offer it for enactment. Until then, I think not.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

BOSTON SCHOOLS, PART 2 : SEEKING A COMPREHENSIVE EDUCATION POLICY

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^ we first suggested it, now others are joining us : John McDonough as Boston’s new school superintendent

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Note : what you are about to read is my re-write of a column that I posted to Here and Sphere a few days ago. This is why I’m doing it:

1. In the days since I first wrote, the Boston Globe published a full page editorial addressing the complexity of school reforms now taking shape as state legislation; and Globe columnist Larry Harmon added his opinion that current Boston interim superintendent John McDonough should be given the permanent position. (Two months ago, I posted the same opinion. I was glad to see others taking up my suggestion.)

2.The Globe editorial arose in response to a strong push by public schools advocates that the state’s current limit on charter school numbers not be lifted. As I wrote in my original article,

“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 were 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.”

Charter schools cannot be seen as replacing standard public schools. They were never intended as such and aren’t used as such now. Teachers unions and their allies want to push the notion of replacement because they somehow feel that education reform threatens their jobs. Their fears have some basis. In many states there’s been much legislation cutting back on public employees’ bargaining rights; and some corporate interests, backed by right-wing think tanks, want to use charter schools as a wedge to eliminate public, taxpayer-funded schools for all children. That agenda has some presence even in Massachusetts. Some business interests want aggressively to control the education of their potential future employees and are determined to get as complete control of the process, from K to graduation, as they can — and if not, to move operations elsewhere.

My inclination is to let such corporations go, if they choose to. Massachusetts’s pre eminence in higher education, research, and finance assure that we will always have plenty of enterprises who want to stay here, move here, set up shop here and continue here. This, of course, assumes that our education of all children continues to be the most rigorous and productive in the nation. To that end, I suggest the following :

1. charter schools should be encouraged and their numbers increased on a one or two at a time basis, by application to the State Commissioner of Education. Funding for charters must come from a combination of user fees, local aid, and taxes assessed state-wide for the purpose.

2. charter schools should continue to act as experimental places, innovating curriculum, teaching method, teacher hires, and student homework loads. Charters might even in some cases be boarding schools ; why not ? Charters cannot become routinized in anything or they cease to be what they were created to do.

3. budgets for standard public schools must be separately assured and planned without thought of what alternative schools may cost. Rivalry for funds cannot be permitted.

4. what succeeds at charter schools — the so called “best practices” test — should be applied in standard schools where and as feasible, and no standard school should see its routines written in stone, ever. Teachers in unions cannot be permitted to cling to work rules — including short school days — that impede pedagogic improvement. In this regard, John McDonough has shown the way by imposing a teacher recycling system that has already produced pedagogic improvement in the schools where he has put it in place.

5. School principals must be free to choose every member of their teaching staff — and of their school support staff too.

6. all schools must educate for two goals : employment and citizenship. The reasonable needs of reasonable employers must be met; the employers want capable hires, and the children want solid employment. Citizenship is the role that children will play as adults in community; to that end, schools must teach cooperative study and play, emotional education, social knowledge — including the role and risks in sex play — and basic civics including the role and process of democratic politics and government.

7. Testing is the only way that we can find out where education is or isn’t succeeding and how well or not. Tests should be semi-annual — no more frequent. Tests should include essay writing, reading comprehension, spelling, mastery of concepts both spacial and philosophical; mathematics and computation; American and world history; basic sciences; civics; and social knowledge including manners and dealing with emotions.

8. Tests need not be given as rigidly as the MCAS. Each school course can conduct its own course tests which can then be fed into the MCAS process and added into the total test score.

9. Teachers should be given the lead role in compiling such tests.

10. As many schools as possible — charter schools too — should be dual-language. Students whose first language is not English need it, and students whose first language IS English need to learn another language. It’s vital if we are to encourage cultural diversity and free American kids from cultural isolation.

So there you have it. What follows is the rest of my original article, slightly revised:

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.

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.

Legislation to increase the number of charters being stalled now, 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.

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 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

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