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Carol Johnson (right) met recent Boston public school graduate Kristine Xue at Boston University with Cornelia Kelley, headmaster of Boston Latin School, by her side.
Carol Johnson (right) met recent Boston public school graduate Kristine Xue at Boston University with Cornelia Kelley, headmaster of Boston Latin School, by her side. (John Bohn/ Globe Staff)

New superintendent faces far different hurdles in Boston

Carol Johnson, Boston's next school superintendent, will confront far different obstacles here than the ones she'll leave behind in Memphis -- including a powerful teachers union that could block her reforms, standardized tests that are tougher to pass, and thousands more students who speak English as a second language.

Johnson, who is expected to start in late August, won praise for raising test scores in Memphis schools, a district more than twice the size of Boston's 57,000-student system. But it is unclear how her achievements will help her tackle Boston's paradox: It is one of the best urban school systems in the country, yet home to some of the worst schools in the state.

Less than 60 percent of Boston's students graduate from high school in four years. About 20 percent -- mostly black and Latino students -- drop out. And, for the past six years, half of the city's sixth-graders flunked the state's math test.

Anxious for improvement, educators, community leaders, and others are urging Johnson to press for dramatic changes in Boston's schools, particularly for black and Latino students who make up the majority of the school system -- even if it means, some say, transferring teachers and principals out of failing schools, like she did in Memphis.

"We're talking about the futures of thousands of children," said Alison Fraser , director of policy and advocacy at Mass Insight Education, a nonprofit pushing for higher standards in schools. "It has to be done with a strong hand. This is about the children, and for too long it's been about the comfort of the adults."

But the drastic measures Johnson took in Memphis during her four years there to rescue failing schools are unlikely to occur in Boston. In Memphis, with union agreement, she removed the principals of 12 failing schools and forced the teachers there to reapply for their jobs; few teachers returned.

That tactic would be opposed strenuously by Boston's teachers union, which blocked the city's innovative pilot schools from expanding for more than a year in a bitter dispute over teacher overtime pay and other issues.

"That can't be on the table," said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, of Johnson's efforts in Memphis to reassign teachers en masse in failing schools. "It doesn't do anything but engender fear and hostility."

Johnson said re staffing schools with new teachers, which would have to be negotiated with the union, would be a last resort to be used only if schools continue failing after several attempts to fix them.

"It's only when we see persistent failure and we feel like we can't tinker with this, do we really have to start over," she said.

Johnson will inherit Boston's strategy for failing schools that Michael G. Contompasis, outgoing superintendent, negotiated with the teachers union this year. Called "superintendent's schools," up to 20 struggling schools will have smaller class sizes, cash incentives for teachers, and other extras. But they will also face more demands, such as a longer school day and more teacher training. The schools were picked from among the city's 145 schools because they made the least progress and were at the greatest risk of state intervention.

Principals in these schools can fill 75 percent of openings, more power than they have now, but far less dramatic than Johnson's past efforts.

The achievement gap between most black and white students is much wider in Boston than in Memphis, but policy and data analysts say it is a misleading comparison because it is harder to pass Massachusetts tests than Tennessee tests.

Black and Latino students make up 76 percent of Boston students, but they trail white and Asian classmates on state tests, and have higher dropout rates. Less than half of Boston's black and Latino 10th- graders mastered math and English last year, scoring at least 30 percentage points behind white and Asian students, according to state test results. Special education students and those still learning English also lag behind.

In Memphis under Johnson, the gap between black and white students appeared to narrow last year at most grades, and test scores rose overall. On the eighth grade reading test, 81 percent of black students there scored proficient or higher, up from 64 percent in 2004, leaving a 15 percentage point gap with white students, according to a report by the Council of the Great City Schools.

But policy and data analysts caution that Tennessee's passing score on its state tests is one of the lowest in the nation . It's so low that it doesn't come close to equaling the lowest possible score of "basic" on comparable national standardized tests for grades 4 and 8, according to a study the National Center for Education Statistics issued this month.

Massachusetts, in contrast, has one of the highest passing scores, close to the national standard for mastery.

In Boston, Johnson will oversee a far more diverse school system than Memphis. Five percent of the Memphis students are not fluent in English, compared with about 18 percent in Boston who are mostly Latino. Memphis has nearly 6,000 Latino students; Boston has more than three times as many.

Paul Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation, said the city needs a more dramatic approach to close the achievement gap and reduce the "disastrously high" dropout rate for black and Latino students.

"It's very clear that we've got to turn up the dial," said Grogan . "We have to be willing to be bolder, more radical. There are going to be things in the environment to permit a skillful superintendent to be able to do that. But it's going to be tough."

In Memphis, Johnson pushed for higher standards in a district that is 85 percent black , requiring that every high school offer Advanced Placement courses and encouraging more students to take Algebra 1 in eighth grade so they will have time to take calculus in high school to prepare for college.

Johnson will also have to address the vast inequities among Boston schools, parents and principals said. Academic and extracurricular opportunities should be distributed more evenly. Schools should have more equal numbers of challenging students, such as special education students, those who don't speak English, and students with discipline problems.

Boston high schools are required to offer college-level courses like A P classes , but the number of offerings vary drastically by school. Boston Latin, the elite exam school, has nearly two dozen AP courses, while smaller Boston schools offer one or two.

Steve Fernandez, a physics teacher at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, an exam school, said he was struck by the stark disparities in school resources during a recent robotics competition at the Museum of Science.

His students swept first, second, and third place because retired engineers had volunteered to work with them after school several days a week. They had access to powerful motors and numerous sophisticated instruments to test their robots for problems. Other Boston schools, such as Jeremiah E. Burke High, had more creatively designed robots that should have won, Fernandez said, but their students did not have the equipment to make their robots work as well.

"Students are not fulfilling their full potential because they don't have the opportunities to do that," he said.

Some schools have also become dumping grounds for students with behavior issues because they house special programs for students with emotional challenges, said parents and principals. The school system is starting to assign such students more evenly to schools.

Students as young as first grade curse at teachers, and throw pencils and blocks at them, said Derek Williams , whose daughter attends the Trotter Elementary School in Dorchester. Student behavior at Trotter and other schools interferes with students' academic performance, according to a school system report.

Johnson faced criticism in Memphis when she replaced corporal punishment with a behavior program that teachers and parents complained was ineffective. The program included counseling and other strategies.

John Mudd , senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, who met with Johnson last week , said Boston was lucky to land Johnson.

"I'm sobered by all the challenges we face," he said, "and she sounds like someone we can face them with together."

Tracy Jan can be reached at Maria Sacchetti can be reached at

From the Memphis school board:
Click the play button below to hear the Globe's Tracy Jan talk to Across the Divide podcast host Russell Contreras about incoming Boston Superintendent Carol Johnson.

Comparing schools