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Let's get back to the blackboard

ARGUABLY, TOM PAYZANT is the perfect superintendent for the Boston Public Schools. He is intelligent, expert, mature, self-effacing, committed, energetic, well liked, and effective. He had consistent political support from the mayor and the School Committee. He had adequate financial resources, far better than in many urban communities.

He had support from the local business, university, and philanthropic communities, the nation's school reform leaders, and major foundations. He had generally positive relations with the Boston Teachers' Union. He pursued, at a reasonable pace, a set of research-based, nationally endorsed reform strategies, and these have had a substantial impact. Yet in spite of all this, we are still a long way from achieving our goals of proficiency for all Boston students.

In a recent study called ``A Decade of Boston School Reform: Reflections and Aspirations" by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, themes emerging from the authors' perspectives are remarkably similar:

Continuity: Almost all of the authors found evidence of significant success as a result of Pazant's educational improvement strategies. Indeed, Boston has seen remarkable improvements and is generally ranked among the highest-performing urban districts in the country. Improvements include increased student learning, as evidenced by good overall test scores, generally steady progress, and a few clear successes with some categories of students. Under Payzant, the system also has successfully created training methods for new teachers and principals, restructured most of its high schools, created a sophisticated data system through which teachers can analyze student test performance, installed coaches to support teacher improvement, and streamlined human resource procedures. At the same time, the researchers said the success is uneven, well short of proficiency for all. Still, Payzant's strategies clearly show enough success and promise for the future that they are well worth continuing.

Equity: While the evidence shows that Payzant's strategies have had a deep impact on the performance and culture of the system, our authors frequently noted problems with the depth and breadth of penetration by these reforms. For example, strategies that require schools to operate in dramatically new ways, such as adopting a collaborative coaching model for teacher support or using student performance data to guide instruction, make significant demands on the professional capacity of schools. Not all schools are invested in or equal to the challenge. Implementation of reform is uneven. Only some students at some schools benefit, and improving averages may hide the fact that some schools remain generally untouched by strategies that work well elsewhere. Fairness demands a more equitable distribution of educational benefits.

Intensity: The success of reform depends on factors like the quality of the strategies, the leadership, and the capacity of and support for those charged with implementation. However, even the best-laid, best-supported plans can come apart if the pacing of change is wrong. Payzant has been focused, deliberate, and incremental in winning internal support for and effective implementation of his strategies. His steady pace has been criticized by some as overly cautious and praised by others as essential for deep and lasting change. Most of the report's authors seem to agree that the strategies are now embedded in the system, but it is time to step up the intensity of reform. Payzant took the right approach on pacing and, as a result, his efforts have changed the culture in important ways that focus on increasing student learning. It is now time to accelerate the pace before more children are left behind.

There are other questions and challenges that must be acknowledged in this work. For one thing, the ``theory of action" under study here -- the idea that the improvement of improved teaching will yield increased learning -- may be too simplistic and too tightly focused. Factors like students' family stability, health, motivation, attendance, mobility, and discipline have a profound effect on the potential success of teaching.

One issue is whether, as Richard Rothstein has argued, improved schooling alone is enough to empower a high proportion of low-income youngsters to overcome the injuries of poverty. The question is whether schools, even optimally led and operated, can create equal opportunity in a society widely divided by inequality. Yes, schools can do that for some, even many. But whether one looks at the proficiency rate for Boston students, the dropout rates, or the college persistence rates, the data are alarming. The bottom line is that large numbers of students are leaving school unprepared for the challenges of the future.

The fact that noneducational factors play a huge role in potential student success does not excuse school failure, exempt school systems from accountability, or diminish the kind of ambitious reform that Payzant has personified. But it does put those reforms and the institution of schooling into perspective and cries out for a comprehensive, intergovernmental, child-focused, renewed war on poverty.

S. Paul Reville is president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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