I have just made a huge decision to leave the school house and join the district office. I don’t think I ever imagined I’d work “in town” but we have an interim superintendent, John McDonough, for whom I have enormous respect. He has been working with Boston Pilot Schools since day one to help provide budget autonomy, and we have succeeded in that area. But there have been too many other stumbling blocks. Too many places when we haven’t gotten it right. I’m excited by the chance to try and help more schools gain the autonomy that I have enjoyed as a principal. I’ve included a link to my personal letter to my school community.
When I was on my book tour, an insightful school committee representative from a city in North Carolina said to me, “I really see what a good school yours is. And I know lots of good schools. But can you have a good school system? Or just a system of good schools? Do you see my question?” I’m not sure I really did.
But as I take on a new challenge with the Boston Public Schools to look at the possibilities of autonomy for all schools, I am asking lots of those questions. As autonomous schools in the Boston Public Schools have increased (we are now almost 25% of the schools), the district administration has not shrunk much. In fact, little has changed in the way the district and schools see one another, even though we have incredibly talented individuals working in our district. I hear this critique across the country: “The district office is too big; the district can’t get out of the way; there is too much bureaucracy; too many rules…”
What is the right relationship between a district office and individual schools? What is the right balance between autonomy and accountability? How do we come to these decisions? These are questions I will investigate during this coming year, through continued conversations with teachers and administrators across the Boston Public School system. We envision this year as one of collecting data and then making some proposals that can be the basis for policies moving forward.
The pilot schools (and Mass. charter schools) were founded on the principle that with autonomy comes accountability. There were five areas of autonomy: budget, hiring, schedule and calendar, curriculum and assessment, and governance. Each of these is complex; together they are indeed representative of what can make a great school. But we have seen that having these five autonomies doesn’t make schools automatically better. Of course, part of the challenge is defining “better.” Does that just mean better test scores? What are the more intrinsic ways of thinking about “better” and about what it means for a school to succeed? These autonomies we have been given may be necessary but they are not sufficient ingredients for success.
Then there is the question of Turnaround Schools. Is this a sustainable strategy? These schools, like pilot schools or in-district charters or Innovation Schools (in Massachusetts), get an infusion of money and the promise of autonomy. Within two or three years they are supposed to be transformed, and by transformation we mean higher test scores. But is there any evidence that these changes can be sustained, especially after the money goes away?
What about the teachers’ union? That is a question I’ve been exploring a lot these days as I take on the exciting task of editing a book about school reform and the role of unions. What have we learned about the ways in which teachers unions both support and detract from school reform efforts? Again, is there a balance that we might pursue that could lead to more harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships between the schools and the districts?
I will try and document my experiences this year, including what I learn, where I see the tensions, and what forms of balance we can achieve. I hope you will give me ideas of questions to ask and that you will keep your own questions coming. I am passionate about public education and there is so much at stake right now. I invite you on this journey.