The Menino Years | Globe Editorial

Improvement marks schools, but no ‘Pathway to Excellence’

September 8, 2009

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IN HIS frequently cited 1996 State of the City Address, Mayor Menino demanded that voters judge him “harshly’’ if he failed to deliver on the schools. He was referring to specific proposals, such as increasing computers in the classroom. And, in the 13 years since then, Menino made good on many small promises.

But former school superintendent Thomas Payzant, who guided the system for a decade, made a more important pronouncement in 1996. He wouldn’t settle for creating a few more high-performing schools, promising instead that all schools in Boston would be good. He spelled out a five-year reform plan rich in high expectations, updated math and reading programs, and classroom coaches for teachers. But 13 years later, Boston still operates an erratic school system where a walk down one of the superintendent’s “Pathways to Excellence’’ can lead nowhere fast.

After four terms, Menino will have trouble convincing voters in the upcoming mayoral election that he can create a great urban school system, a goal that still eludes other big cities. Voters know he cares deeply about the city’s schoolchildren. His six grandchildren attended Boston schools last year, though some may not return this year. The same discussion is taking place in many families. About 60,00 children attended the city’s schools in 1993. Expected enrollment this year is 56,000. Families with options exercise them. About one-quarter of school-age children in Boston shun the public schools. And waiting lists for charter schools and METCO seats in the suburbs stretch across the city.

The system - though strong by national urban standards - should be significantly better and more predictable by now. Menino gets to handpick the seven-member school board. The teachers union is difficult, but movable. And the school budget has more than doubled to $755 million since the mayor took office in 1993. The mayor can’t blame others for poor performance in the schools, at least not convincingly.

To his credit, Menino conceived a solid game plan, appointing a top educator as superintendent and giving him strong backing. At first, Payzant drew national raves and nearly $100 million in philanthropic donations. “To a degree rare in large school systems, teachers, school leaders, and central office administrators are focused on teaching and learning,’’ read a 2006 study by the Aspen Institute. But Payzant didn’t reach his goal of system-wide excellence, not by a long shot.

Federal and state education officials classify roughly three-quarters of the city’s 135 schools as “in need of improvement.’’ And 48 of the schools have been placed in stricter categories for restructuring or corrective action. Current School Superintendent Carol Johnson, who arrived in 2007, is struggling to keep pace. She recently made the tough but necessary decision to close or consolidate eight schools to deal with budget shortfalls and declining enrollment. But Johnson, unlike her predecessor, is drawing unwanted attention. Justice Department officials are probing how the system failed to provide proper language support to 42 percent of its 11,000 students with limited English skills.

Menino showed real anger back in 1996 at the sorry state of Boston’s schools. That anger drove reform. Now, both the anger and reform seem to be abating. It took years of union objections to the creation of flexible in-district pilot schools before the mayor struck back, recently threatening to lift the cap on state charter schools to compete with Boston’s regular schools. And Menino isn’t effective when he lays back.

A gentleman’s ‘C’ for leadership
Winners and losers abound. The winners are the striving students from both poor and middle-class backgrounds whose education-minded parents steer them to one of the city’s top-performing exam high schools. These families pay about one-third of the property taxes found in the fancier towns around Boston, yet their kids go on to colleges as good or better than their suburban counterparts. The big losers are the roughly 1,400 kids who dropped out of school last year. And among average students who stick it out, about 40 percent fail to graduate in four years. It all comes back to the erratic offerings. Menino has failed to convince parents in the largely minority neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan that he can improve the schools closest to their homes. Until then, parents insist on busing their students miles away, consuming millions of dollars in transportation costs that could be used in classrooms.

Every time Menino tries to restructure the school zones, he is driven back. And the resistance is paralyzing the best idea of his fourth term - the careful coordination of activities in neighborhood schools, libraries, and community centers to ensure that every student has easy access to homework help, sports leagues, and social activities.

The problem isn’t some holdover from the 1970s battle over desegregation, either. About nine out of 10 BPS students are minorities. The system stopped assigning students based on race 10 years ago. Neighborhood schools could make sense for Boston today. But that can’t happen until Menino and school officials can prove to parents that the nearest school is also effective.

Menino can point to a steady increase on statewide assessment tests since 1998. His critics can point to a system that falls short on helping students reach the next stage of proficiency. He can point to progress on the dropout rate. They can point to flat graduation rates and racial achievement gaps. On and on. Perhaps he deserves a gentleman’s C for his handling of the schools. But the larger point is that he shouldn’t be a gentleman if given another four years in office.

Menino has been too willing to accept change only at the pace the bureaucracy can handle. Superintendent Johnson looks to be from the same school. But the kids could go faster, especially if the administration could negotiate a contract that includes merit pay for the best teachers and greater management control over class scheduling and length of the school day.

Menino was snorting mad in 1995 when a piece of the ceiling in the auditorium of the crumbling Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester fell and nearly beaned him. For a while, he quickened the pace of rebuilding and reform. He needs to proceed like the sky is falling again.

First of five editorials on Mayor Menino’s record.

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