Shirley Leung

Boston superintendent Tommy Chang gets down to business

School Superintendent Tommy Chang applauded in the background as Vertex chief Jeff Leiden awarded a scholarship to Cankang Wu of Excel High.
School Superintendent Tommy Chang applauded in the background as Vertex chief Jeff Leiden awarded a scholarship to Cankang Wu of Excel High. Harrison Hill for The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

New Boston School Superintendent Tommy Chang speaks the language of business with his 100-day action plan, call for innovation, and focus on job skills.

But after a series of meetings with executives, he knows that won’t be enough to convince them Boston’s public schools have a bright future.

“The business community I don’t think is all in,” Chang told me recently, sitting in his fifth-floor office at the new School Department headquarters in Dudley Square.

“They want to be,” he added. “They are looking for guidance from the school system. We have to provide that guidance.”

It’s a lesson that Chang quickly learned after he arrived from Los Angeles, where he was a teacher and administrator. In Boston, the business community has long had a seat at the table, and that’s something he has to get used to.


But those same leaders were disappointed — and frustrated — by the slow pace of change under Mayor Tom Menino. This results-oriented crowd craved better metrics coming out of a system in which many students continued to perform below grade level on MCAS reading, writing, and math tests.

Not that there weren’t any high marks from Menino’s two-decade mayoral reign. Superintendent Tom Payzant brought stability, and under him, Boston was a perennial finalist for the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education. The city ultimately won in 2006, and along with it got the bragging rights as the best city public school system in the country.

Then came Superintendent Carol Johnson in 2007, who couldn’t engineer broad gains in academic achievement but cut the annual high school dropout rate in half by the time she had left in 2013. The graduation rate also ticked up from 57.9 percent in 2007 to 66.7 percent last year.

But as charter schools within the city shined, a faction within the business community began supporting these alternative schools. Chang’s challenge, Chris Gabrieli points out, is to restore confidence that traditional classrooms can be transformed.


“It will take a lot of boldness and leadership,” said Gabrieli, a former venture capitalist and 2006 gubernatorial candidate who now focuses on education reform.

Talk to Chang, and one of the ideas he is most passionate about is creating pathways for students into the workplace. In other words, developing a curriculum that actually prepares kids for real jobs. It’s something he saw firsthand in California, where high schools are experimenting with the concept. “Boston is a unique place to do this sort of work,” Chang said.

The reason: It’s clear where many of the jobs are in the local economy: health care, finance, and technology. Knowing that, Chang would like to put students on a career path in high school with relevant classes and internships.

But he can’t figure this out on his own, nor does he want to. The business community has invested time and money, and now he wants its ideas.

“What we need is their intellectual capital to help us redesign what the high school experience is,” Chang said. “Don’t come and fit into our paradigm. Come and help us reform the paradigm in which we operate.”

To drive home that point, Chang pulls out a PowerPoint slide displaying how the classroom of today looks just like one from the 1800s: a teacher standing in front of students sitting behind desks.


“The world has changed,” he said, but “there is a lot of inertia to what schools look like and to how they function.”

Vertex Pharmaceuticals is one of those companies that Chang plans to lean on for help. Last month he visited a special lab at the Boston biotech headquarters, where students from Excel High School and Boston Green Academy regularly go to learn science and are mentored on their science fair projects. The goal is to get kids hooked on the topic and then apply what they learn in paid summer internships at Vertex.

“The classroom is one thing, but particularly for underserved kids, seeing that there is a route to a job is hugely motivational,” said Vertex chief executive Jeff Leiden.

So how does Leiden plan to measure success? “When we hire the first one of these kids as a full-time Vertex employee when they get out of college, I know we would have closed the circle,” he said.

Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a public-private partnership between businesses and schools, said it’s good to see Chang taking a broad view of education and what counts as success.

“That is getting my circle of employers excited,” said Sullivan, whose members include the area’s teaching hospitals and financial institutions. “When you talk to business leaders, they want academic performance, absolutely, but they are also looking for a set of skills that are productive for the workforce.”


Chang is trying to prepare the workforce of tomorrow, but to do that, he’ll need more ideas from the business leaders of today.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.