Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Boston's Education Mayor: None of the Above
Recently, one of my students asked me who I thought was the best mayoral candidate on the issue of education. Was it John Connolly, the candidate who proclaims himself the next "education mayor" with a desire to decentralize the school district and increase charter schools. Was it Marty Walsh, who is focusing his education policy on increasing job-training and has proposed creating vocational programs in every high school? After some thought, I answered "none of the above." It appears that neither candidate will be the "education mayor." The problem I said was that both candidates are advocating large-scale reform in the Boston Public Schools. As the Boston Globe stated today, both candidates for mayor offer plans to "overhaul" the schools. Yet, the Boston Public Schools is one of the top urban districts in the country. Its students have some of the highest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The district received the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. It has experienced substantial progress in lowering drop out rates. The Boston Public Schools need a mayor committed to sustaining the the progress the system has made and will intentionally focus support and resources on the schools that are struggling the most.
In reality, the mayoral candidates are mimicking a larger national narrative on education, which I have previously argued reflects a common misconception that education reform and education improvement are one in the same. Despite evidence to the contrary, the media and politicians continue to perpetrate a myth that the U.S. education system is in peril and that market-based reforms and privatization are the only answer. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, students have shown substantial gains over the past 40 years and, albeit slowly, the achievement gap is closing. The research shows that the sources of America’s educational problems are primarily outside the school and rooted in income inequality and poverty. My BU colleague, Don Gillis recently highlighted the need for the next mayor to focus on poverty. Educational research supports this idea. One of the candidates, John Connolly recently claimed that improving the education system will increase jobs and reduce crime. However, his logic is backward. Increasing jobs (and reducing crime) will ultimately help improve the schools.
Although poverty and inequality are the main sources of the educational problems, there are measures that the next mayor of Boston should take to continue the improvement already made in the Boston Public Schools. The goal of the next mayor should be to focus on what Michael Fullan calls "continual improvement." The future superintendent should guide Boston in learning from (and sharing with) other high-performing urban school districts, including Brockton (MA), Framingham (MA), Union City (NJ), Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC), Montgomery County (MD), and Cincinnati (OH). These districts did not enact a laundry list of market-based reforms. They did not increase the number of charter schools, hire private firms to manage under-performing schools, or bring in Teacher for America teachers, and in many cases the teachers unions were partners in implementing change. Based on what these districts have done and what the research literature tells us, I suggest five areas for the next mayor to focus on (which have not been widely discussed in this mayoral race).
1. Improve instruction by providing more time for professional development and collaboration
The next mayor should support the idea of embedding regular professional development time in the school day. Collaboration is at the heart of sustaining education improvement. It has been well documented that one of the major barriers to school improvements is a lack of time for teachers to work together on improving their instruction. This would include opportunities for teachers to observe each other and work in small groups to problem solve curriculum and instructional problems.
2. Leadership that focuses on team approaches to problem solving
The next mayor should choose a superintendent who will listen to the building principals, while being a leader in problem solving. They should be guided by the work of Andy Hargreaves and Alma Harris' on performance beyond expectations, which looks at highly success leadership across fields and use it as a model of leadership. Principals should be encouraged to embed teacher problem solving in their schools. Their goal should be to unite the faculty and foster a collective culture.
3. Decrease class size
Reducing class size improves student performance. You can see my presentation last year to the Framingham Teachers Association that summarizes the major research studies. Urban districts (including Boston) often have larger classes sizes compared to their more affluent suburban peers. This has had almost no mentioned in the mayor's race, yet should be one of the main issues discussed for improving the Boston Public Schools.
4. Enrich the curriculum; Include a focus on multicultural curriculum and culturally relevant teaching
Although literacy, math, and science are important, Boston lacks the diverse curriculum of the suburbs. The narrowing of the curriculum has had negative consequences in many urban districts. In many elementary schools in BPS, students are not being taught history or social studies. Art, music, and physical education should not be reserved for after school programs. The city should create more music- and art-themed schools, two-way bilingual schools and programs, and strengthen the high school athletics programs. The city should invest in Madison Park Vocational High School, making it a state-of-the-art technical facility. Finally, the curriculum should reflect the culture of BPS's students. Students of color should be learning about their histories and cultures and it should be embedded at every level of the system's curriculum. There are strong linkages between culturally relevant teaching and student success. Although many teachers in Boston are culturally relevant teachers, the district should offer more professional development around teaching in multicultural contexts and using culturally relevant pedagogy.
5. Increase racial diversity across schools
There is strong evidence that racial segregation has a negative impact on student success. Although the diversity of the Boston Public Schools will be increased if more White parents choose to send their children to Boston's schools (slightly less than half of the city is White), the next mayor should not only focus on White parents and schools in predominantly White neighborhoods. This would simply increase the White student populations in neighborhoods that are already predominantly White and only exacerbate the current problem of racial segregation. The Boston Public Schools needs an intentional effort to increase diversity across all the neighborhoods' schools. The main level for increasing diversity it to increase the quality of all schools across the system and particularly schools located in Boston's communities of color.
If the next mayor wants to be the "education mayor," instead of offering large-scale market-based reform efforts, he will need to dedicate the resources to sustain the improvements made over the past 20 years. As a former teacher, future Boston Public Schools parent, and current education professor, I hope the candidates are seriously considering these issues.