AS THEIR CHILDREN return to school today, Boston parents should feel reasonably assured that new School Superintendent Carol Johnson is in the right chair. Despite the complexities found in a large urban school district, there isn't much that is likely to rattle the 59-year-old former head of the Minneapolis and Memphis school systems.
Bostonians should warm quickly to Johnson's easy smile and non-defensive posture. But it would be foolish to underestimate her resolve. She closed eight schools in Memphis, a strategy that could be necessary here if enrollment continues to fall. Her attitude toward independent charter schools is instructive. Unions and school boards resent the competition. She doesn't. "The monopoly is over," says Johnson. "We have to earn the right to serve the kids next door."
Subpar performance evaluations of principals and headmasters in Boston schools are rare. But subpar schools, unfortunately, are not. One of Johnson's more daunting challenges will be finding the right people and the right method to evaluate principals and headmasters. That was one area where former school superintendent Thomas Payzant fell short.
Payzant deserves credit for rejuvenating a moribund school system in the mid-1990s by introducing citywide standards and insisting that reforms reach all schools instead of a favored few. But Payzant overestimated the ability of many principals to inspire staffers and elevate student performance. And his handful of deputies charged with evaluating principals were often distracted by public safety issues or other emergencies.
For the benefit of the city's 57,000 pupils, Johnson must not be seen as an easy grader of school leaders. Teachers often bear the blame when a student fails. But it is the job of the principal to give teachers the tools and inspiration they need to reduce student dropout rates and help close the achievement gap between white and minority students. Some struggling principals will thrive with good leadership training. Others simply won't.
Johnson says she replaced or transferred half of the roughly 200 principals in Memphis over four years. That shows resolve. But she also said in an interview last week that schools need three years to turn around. That is simply too long for students to languish. One early test for Johnson will be her handling of 10 "superintendent schools" that are scheduled to receive more than $1 million each this year to improve weak test scores. If the 10 superintendent schools can't show acceptable progress within a year, Johnson should make changes at the top.
Wisely, Johnson is already eyeing ways to trim the system's $70 million transportation costs. Experienced superintendents know that money spent in the classroom takes students a lot further in life.