There are school superintendents who burst on the scene with a dramatic reform agenda, yet prove unable to bring the major constituencies along with them--the unions, the statehouse, the parents. That's one reason why the average urban superintendent is lucky to finish out his third year on the job.
Boston was long prone to this cycle. But Thomas Payzant has given the Hub a new story to tell. Payzant, 61, just renewed his contract as superintendent of Boston public schools until 2005, by which time he will have served a full decade in the job--the first person to accomplish that feat in Boston in more than 40 years.
Payzant has staying power for a couple of reasons. The first is that he enjoys the full support of Mayor Thomas Menino, who appoints the members of Boston's school board. The blame game that dogged Boston's schools for years--through busing wars and subsequent neglect--has diminished since voters decided in a referendum to eliminate the old elected board.
The new governance structure gave Payzant a chance to last, but his steady focus on goals is what has made him a success. He made sure that every school had a plan in place to guarantee every student would at least learn how to read. He built on his initial demands for basic literacy by changing the nature of teacher training. Instead of sending teachers to conferences, he has brought instruction for teachers right into the classrooms, "trying to break down isolation," he says.
The Boston job represented a homecoming for Payzant, who was born in the city, raised in nearby Quincy and holds degrees from Harvard. Payzant has been superintendent of districts in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Oklahoma and California, where he led the San Diego schools for most of the 1980s. He served as an assistant secretary of education during the first Clinton administration.
Just before Payzant came to Boston in 1995, the state was considering a takeover of the city's schools. By changing the curriculum throughout the district to meet state standards, Payzant has steadily increased test scores. Last year, 69 percent of Boston's Class of 2000 was attending college, which was about 10 percent above the national average.
But Boston is facing a potential graduation crisis. Beginning with the Class of 2003, students throughout the state must pass the 10th- grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam in order to graduate. When that class took the test last year, barely half the students in Boston passed it. Payzant recognizes there is political pressure building in the legislature to waive the test requirement for another year or two but he says, "I'm not ready to blink yet." Payzant and test supporters on his board argue that if students can't pass the MCAS, they aren't going to do very well in college or careers.
Not everyone shares Payzant's faith in the test. But even when people disagree with Payzant, they find him patient, persistent and driven but not single-minded. He has often walked into rooms filled with angry parents and disarmed them through the simple act of intent listening. Some parents still complain that Payzant pays more heed to the business community than to them, but Payzant just won board approval to change the way the district supports parent and community groups.
Payzant's next challenge is dealing with his first budget shortfall. A darling of foundations, corporate donors and the mayor--he's received bigger budget increases from Menino than any other department head--Payzant recently had to cut $41 million out of his $635 million budget. Boston schools will take a 1 percent cut in personnel, but Payzant's central office will lose 10 percent of its staff, a decision characteristic of his belief that the classroom is the center of the educational universe.