Tommy Chang rode a wave of good will when he became Boston’s new schools chief back in 2015, launching a listening tour of the city and promising to improve its long-struggling schools. In just three years, however, Chang found himself under fire for missteps and delays, ultimately stepping down before completing his five-year contract.
But Chang wasn’t the only senior official to leave Boston Public Schools: By the fall of 2019, more than three quarters of Chang’s top 50 leaders also had left the district, a recent state audit found, part of a recurrent brain drain that has consistently hobbled efforts to implement lasting reform in Boston schools.
Now, Brenda Cassellius, who in 2019 became Boston’s fourth superintendent in six years, is facing tough questions about her leadership after the city’s high school heads denounced her plan to redesign their schools as a “top-down exercise in poor planning.” Mayor Martin J. Walsh as well as community leaders have rushed to the superintendent’s support, because, as the Rev. Jacqueline Rivers put it, “The last thing our kids need is more instability.”
Unfortunately, such fears are well-founded in the Boston district, where turbulence at the top seems to be the rule rather than the exception. The state audit, released in March, identified chronic leadership changes as one of the biggest obstacles to lasting reform, noting that during the 2018-19 school year alone, roughly 20 percent of school leaders left their positions. Turnover is most pronounced at some of the city’s troubled schools: Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, for example, has had seven leaders in less than a decade, according to information from the district.
That steady churn of school and central office leadership forces schools to reboot reform efforts again and again, as new leaders arrive with new policies and new priorities. “As a result,” the audit’s authors conclude: “initiatives — especially ambitious ones — are ineffectively implemented, stall, or are not implemented at all.”
Chang, now in California, declined to comment.
But Michael Contompasis, who served as district superintendent from 2005 to 2007, said Boston schools will continue to struggle with meaningful reform and high turnover rates among leaders if they lack the political backing to make hard decisions.
“We keep hearing about the need to change, but the political will hasn’t been there,” said Contompasis, who also led Boston Latin School for more than two decades. “You can’t continue to have the turnover we have and bring about sustainable change.”
Mayor Walsh has signaled his support for Cassellius so far, telling the Globe he believed she would emerge “stronger” from the controversy, and adding, “I want her to lead this district.”
Even so, Cassellius’ Boston trajectory is beginning to look painfully familiar as she faces criticism from community members, central office staffers, high school heads, and school principals, many of whom she must rely on to carry out her agenda. Though school leaders later softened their tone, the harshly worded letters sent shock waves through the city’s school community.
By almost any measure, running Boston’s 125 public schools is a herculean task. The majority of the district’s 53,000 students are low income, nearly half speak a native language other than English, and many have complex educational, social, and emotional needs.
A huge portion of them also attend schools that are chronically underachieving: Thirty-four Boston schools — educating nearly 17,000 students — were among the lowest-performing 10 percent of schools in the state, the March audit found. If these schools formed a district, it would be the fourth largest in Massachusetts.
Trying to solve such deep-rooted problems with limited resources while ministering to key constituencies — from parents and politicians to principals and teachers — is a major reason superintendents typically last only a few years in their posts, according to former Massachusetts education secretary Paul Reville.
“That’s one of the great problems in American public education,” said Reville, who noted high leadership churn rates are not unique to the Boston district. Superintendents often hire new teams when they come into office, knowing they may last only a few years, which, he said, “is a very short period of time to make change.”
Cassellius, coming to BPS from the top education job in Minnesota, signed a three-year contract with an option to renew. Just like Chang, she immediately set about visiting district schools, meeting with community members, and assembling her leadership team.
And, while any new superintendent is expected to bring a new vision and a new inner circle, Cassellius soon drew criticism that she was perpetuating the district’s turnover problem. Among the complaints cited by school leaders in the two letters was Cassellius’ removal of six high school heads during the coronavirus shutdown.
“[C]hanges made under these circumstances are absolutely detrimental to morale,” the Boston High School Heads Association wrote in one of the letters. “These personnel changes exacerbated long standing issues with principal turnover and lack of trust between school leaders and the central office.”
The removal of the six leaders during the pandemic shutdown coincided with a broader district shake-up, which included nearly two dozen changes to school-based leadership and the elimination of 10 positions in the Office of Academics and Professional Learning.
Those changes followed earlier departures by members of Cassellius’ executive team, and a subsequent reshuffling of her academic superintendents. Similarly, the March audit noted that only one of the district’s eight deputy district superintendents and chiefs who had served at the start of the previous year remained in the same position.
The turnover has not stopped: Cassellius is now on her third chief of staff, and she said she has not finished building her team.
“I have a strong team, but I do think it’s going to take time to fill it completely out,” Cassellius said, noting several vacancies. “I’m talking the whole central office, and making sure that everybody is in the right seat on the bus, and that we’re all headed in the same direction.”
She added that not all staffing changes are equally disruptive.
“Transferring or making moves is very different than being forced out or leaving because you’re disgruntled,” said Cassellius, who added that some of the issues raised in the audit and by school leaders predate her arrival. “I just got to Boston Public Schools.”
Still, the leadership changes come at a difficult time, as Cassellius races to reopen schools this fall amid widespread racial unrest and a cratered economy, while also contending with broad pushback against her leadership.
The view from the schoolyard is not much better: A Globe review found that more than half of all BPS school leaders from the start of the 2015-16 year are no longer in those same schools.
The steady churn has had devastating effects on some of the lowest-performing schools, where the majority of students hail from historically marginalized populations.
These schools often have the least experienced principals and see the most frequent turnover in leadership: Half of all principals leading turnaround/transformation schools supported by the district last year had been in their positions for three years or less, and more than a third of them had three years or less experience as a school leader.
“There is no strategic staffing effort to encourage experienced turnaround leaders from within or outside the district to lead turnaround/transformation schools,” the auditors wrote.
Madison Park, for example, already had a revolving door of leadership when Cassellius in May removed the school’s well-regarded executive director and sidelined its head of school, announcing a national search for a new head of school. The incoming leader will become the eighth person in as many years to lead the school, which the state has deemed underperforming and where the vast majority of students are low-income Black and Latino students.
“Why is it always the same schools?” asked Barbara Fields, a former educator and executive board member of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts. “They don’t have the support they need. We constantly move their principals around and cause constant disruption for the students. If you really care about kids, why would you do that?”
Meanwhile, frequent reordering of senior staff in the central office has left principals — and particularly new principals — with very little support from the district.
“You end up going to the people who you just have a relationship with rather than the right person who’s supposed to manage [it],” said one school leader who declined to be identified for fear of professional retribution.
Similarly, the audit found that the district provides inconsistent support to struggling schools, noting that Boston lacks “a clear, coherent, districtwide strategy for supporting low performing schools.”
“You kind of feel like you’re on your own to figure it out,” said Stephanie Sibley, who led several schools in Boston before leaving the district in 2018. “They just didn’t have a strategy for how they were supporting the schools that were having the most difficult time.”
The result: Principals, under immense pressure to boost accountability measures quickly, either burn out or are abruptly removed if scores don’t rise. Low-performing schools continue to struggle, and the district’s achievement gap persists.
Now, as Cassellius prepares to lead Boston schools through what is certain to be a year of historic challenges, she also has proposed to tackle some of those gaps with an accelerated pace for her high school redesign plan, implementing it as soon as September 2021.
But while there’s nearly universal agreement that reforms are necessary — Tommy Chang also championed overhauling high school programs — educational observers caution against a fast-track approach.
“The school system is now in sort of emergency response mode,” said Reville, who founded the Education Redesign Lab at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
“We shouldn’t just go back to the status quo,” he said, noting Cassellius came in as a reformer. “That was not serving people anywhere near well enough … but if you pivot too quickly, you run the risk of having it blow up in your face.”