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Review finds Boston schools in disarray

Says lack of harmony among departments imperils education

Interim Superintendent John McDonough said academic leaders are already working to remedy many of the problems highlighted, including taking measures to reorganize academic departments in the central office, according to a memorandum that accompanies the review.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Interim Superintendent John McDonough said academic leaders are already working to remedy many of the problems highlighted, including taking measures to reorganize academic departments in the central office, according to a memorandum that accompanies the review.

The quality of education in Boston’s schools is in jeopardy, hamstrung by academic departments that are “badly fractured, distrustful, and lacking a sense of teamwork or shared responsibility for the district’s students,” according to an external review commissioned by the School Department.

The rampant dysfunction filters down to individual schools, where the priorities set by academic leaders often fail to reach the classrooms.

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That kind of ripple effect prevents the school system from realizing goals officials have established in efforts to overhaul it. Some districtwide scores on national standardized tests have stagnated or dropped since 2011.

“Staff members in the district do not have a clear understanding of the school system’s mission, academic vision, priorities for reform, or plans for navigating the challenges ahead,” according to the review, which was conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy and research organization.

Meg Campbell, a School Committee member who cochairs a subcommittee on school quality, said the report was troubling. She commended the school system for undertaking the review.

‘In sum, the challenges facing Boston public schools are great, but not insurmountable.’

Council of the Great city schools report 
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“There is nothing more urgent we face as a district than getting teaching and learning right,” Campbell said. “People are entrusting their children to us.”

The School Department has kept the review private since February, but posted the findings on its website Wednesday night, amid growing public pressure and a request from the Globe a day earlier to release it. The review comes on the heels of another evaluation the School Department commissioned on its food services program that found widespread dysfunction and millions of dollars in financial losses.

Interim Superintendent John McDonough said academic leaders are already working to remedy many of the problems highlighted, including taking measures to reorganize academic departments in the central office, according to a memorandum that accompanies the review.

McDonough said in the memorandum that the review pointed out good practices, as well as challenges. He said the findings were not released sooner because the report is a draft and the final version is not yet complete.

“You will notice that the difficulties raised in [the review] are familiar ones that we, the School Committee, and individual school leaders and teachers have raised before,” said McDonough in the memorandum, which was dated May 21. “These are areas that we as a district have often struggled to resolve systematically.”

McDonough could not be reached for comment. The chief financial officer of the system since 1996, McDonough has served as interim superintendent since June. A search committee decided earlier this month to extend its hunt into next year, meaning he will probably remain in charge until then.

Boston has been struggling for years to bolster the quality of its schools. More than half of the city’s schools rank in the state’s bottom 20 percent on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams, and last fall state education officials decided to take over two schools, a first for Boston.

Reading has been particularly problematic in Boston’s classrooms. Only slightly more than 30 percent of third- and fourth-graders were proficient in reading on the MCAS, according to last spring’s results, the most recent data available. Math scores were only marginally better, according to the data.

Often, teachers are blamed for low achievement, but high turnover in key academic positions in central offices has been a factor in Boston’s problems. For instance, during Carol R. Johnson’s six-year tenure as superintendent she had a different chief academic officer nearly every year. The turnover of officials has raised concerns among teachers and principals for years that the school system’s academic mission is adrift.

The review indicates the problems are indeed systemic, spurred by disorganization, competing interests in the central office, and vacancies in many key positions in the central office, particularly in its support networks for schools, which are supposed to assist principals and teachers with operational and academic issues. It also cited a lack of coordination among academic departments, special education, and the office of English language learners.

“In sum, the challenges facing Boston public schools are great, but not insurmountable,” the review concluded.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said power struggles between different departments in the central office have long concerned rank-and-file educators.

“The casualties here are the teachers,” Stutman said. “The teachers have to absorb a lot of the uncertainty and dissension. It’s not helpful to have people vying for power in the central office.”

The review team interviewed 54 high-ranking district administrators, as well as principals, teachers, and parents.

Beyond organizational issues, the review raised a host of questions about academic priorities and programs.

The district’s work to revamp English and math instruction so it aligns with a new set of national standards adopted by the state “seems to have been displaced by its work on teacher evaluations,” the report says, and a lot of professional development has focused on explaining how the new evaluation system works.

The trade-off comes as districts across Massachusetts begin trying out an online state testing system based on the new national standards that could replace the MCAS as the barometer the state uses to judge school quality. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will make that decision next year.

The review also said that district staff criticized the Reading Street program, adopted a few years ago in elementary schools to boost reading scores. Staff said they were not confident the program is producing better results for students and does not appear to mesh with new national standards for reading instruction.

Despite the problems, the review found several positive aspects. It said the school system’s work to put in place the new national academic standards is among the most robust in the nation, that some English and math units it developed were of high quality even though they were not implemented well, and that nearly half the schools designated by the state as underperforming in 2010 have rebounded.

It also praised McDonough’s decision to give principals more leeway to hire from outside, instead of forcing them to pull from a pool of internal candidates.

Barbara Fields — the school system’s former equity officer, who oversaw diversity initiatives — said it will take strong leadership from McDonough to break down silos in the central office and get people to work together.

“If John can’t pull together the team, we will see progress with some kids, but not systemic progress,” Fields said.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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