One of the reasons big-city school districts struggle as much as they do is the constant churn of their senior leadership. New superintendents are constantly coming to town promising to overhaul and revive troubled systems, but because they tend to leave shortly after encountering inevitable resistance, nothing really changes. A standout exception to this dynamic is Thomas Payzant, who has spent the past decade restoring Boston’s public schools as places where most children actually learn.
Unlike superintendents in places such as Philadelphia and New York, Payzant hasn’t attempted to revamp the district’s management or structure. Instead, he has increased the focus on basic subjects such as literacy and math while investing heavily in teacher training.
These simple-sounding changes have paid big dividends. Examine any set of education statistics from Boston, and you’ll see that Payzant’s tenure has been marked by clear improvement. The percentage of students who were able to pass Massachusetts’ relatively rigorous 10th grade math assessment test tripled from 1998 to 2004, for example, from 25 percent to 74 percent, while the passing rate for English shot from 43 percent to 77 percent.
Even the most troubled districts in the country can point to pockets of success — schools that provide quality instruction despite financial and demographic handicaps. However, Payzant’s mantra, and his strength, has been to promote change across the entire city. Even outside the showcase high schools, the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses is 10 times higher than it was five years ago. “I don’t know another urban system that has made more progress than the Boston public schools,” says Richard Elmore, of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
Elmore and others (including Payzant himself) credit the stability of leadership — both political and educational — in the city. Just before Payzant came to town, the state was considering a takeover of Boston’s schools. Instead, legislators handed Mayor Thomas Menino control of the school board. Menino has been unflagging in his support of Payzant’s initiatives.
Payzant, 64, is a Massachusetts native who has led four districts in four other states. After serving as San Diego’s superintendent for most of the 1980s, Payzant joined the Clinton administration as an assistant secretary of education, playing an important role in shaping and promoting a pair of landmark laws. One of them, the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, set standards that in many ways anticipated and laid the foundation for the current No Child Left Behind law. Payzant, then and now, has a reputation as being persistent but mild-mannered. He sets a big goal and steers toward it, keeping distracting noises at bay.
High schools have been a particular focus for Payzant. Yet despite breaking large Boston high schools into smaller campuses or “learning communities,” and reducing the pupil-teacher ratio, not every student is thriving. About one-fifth of Boston’s Class of 2003 was unable, despite many tries, to pass the state assessment tests, which are now required for graduation. The city’s dropout rate, while falling, also remains over 20 percent. As is true throughout the country, the difference in performance between whites and Asians on the one hand and Hispanics and African Americans on the other remains unacceptably pronounced. “The debate about closing the achievement gap is as important and lively as ever,” Payzant says.
In other words, Payzant’s painstaking methods have not proved to be a silver bullet, any more than the grandiose promises sometimes made by urban superintendents elsewhere. Too many city kids bring insurmountable problems to school with them. But, as Payzant says, folding the flag and saying it can’t be done is no solution. Instead, he has pursued a course that has led to greater rates of improvement in Boston than can be found in similar situations elsewhere. When he retires in 2006, it won’t be easy for the city to find a replacement.
— Alan Greenblatt
Photo by Webb Chappell