A strong pick to run schools

John McDonough

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

John McDonough

The search for a new Boston school superintendent will easily uncover candidates with more charisma than interim superintendent John McDonough. But so would leafing through a phone book. Undoubtedly, there are more accomplished educators out there. McDonough doesn’t even pretend to be an educator per se. Before taking up his current post in May, he served for 18 years as the school system’s chief financial officer. And it’s hard to assess the multicultural competency of someone who spends so much time with spreadsheets.

Yet there is a growing feeling around town that the 62-year-old McDonough might be the best person to lead Boston’s schools. A Wheelock College education blog post cites McDonough for leading “a quiet revolution.’’ CommonWealth Magazine praises him for his “bold and risky move to change the way the school system hires its teachers.’’ Even Boston University dean Hardin Coleman, the co-chair of the search committee, quipped that he has “a professional crush on John McDonough.’’


It would be awkward, to say the least, to suspend the search just as the public hearings on a new superintendent are getting underway. But if the academic achievement of Boston students, ability to judge talent, and staff devotion were the main criteria for the job, then the search committee could pack up and go home.

McDonough is ramming through reforms only dreamed about by his predecessors. His current budget proposal would eliminate about 120 downtown bureaucrats. There’s more money in the budget for K-1 classrooms and less for school bus transportation.

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McDonough’s greatest accomplishment, however, has been the dismantling of a teacher hiring system that allowed marginal but tenured teachers to fill open positions before outside candidates could even be considered. His knowledge of both the inner workings of the department and the minutiae of the teachers’ contract led him to an obscure provision that allows principals to sidestep the so-called excess pool of unwanted teachers provided their chosen candidates are paid a modest stipend. In the past, the hiring process would drag along through the summer as teachers emerged from the excess pool and slipped into new classrooms without much input from principals. Meanwhile, the suburbs and charter schools were scooping up the top talent in the spring.

McDonough stunned the city this month when he posted 1,000 teaching positions, already having cleared the way for principals and headmasters to hire teachers that best match their schools’ needs.

This bold move could go a long way toward replacing the bottom tier of teachers in Boston. When that happens, expect to see a significant closing of the achievement gap between Boston’s minority students and their white suburban counterparts. A lot of struggling teachers could be redeemed, too. McDonough recently consolidated the departments responsible for hiring, training, and evaluating teachers. Now all of these crucial “human capital’’ functions are overseen by one highly regarded administrator.


McDonough, a lifelong Bostonian, went to work in the school department 40 years ago as a library clerk. He quickly got bumped out of the job by someone with more political juice. But he methodically rose through the school department’s finance office, earning an MBA and respect along the way. Still, he’s not going to match up well on paper against the dozen or so sitting superintendents with star power who are likely to seek the coveted job in Boston. But these urban circuit riders usually stay around for a couple of years before looking for bigger pastures. In the time required for one of them to learn the ropes in Boston, McDonough could shrink the achievement gap.

Retired military officers and business executives are recruited to lead urban school districts. Why not an astute number cruncher with nerve to spare?

When he accepted the interim job, McDonough said he wouldn’t seek the permanent post. He’s staying true to his word. But that doesn’t mean that Mayor Walsh has to rush out and find his replacement.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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