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Tommy Chang on leading a school system like a startup

What the new Boston superintendent has to say about testing, charter schools, and innovation.

“A test is a one-time-of-year measurement of what students know; we have the rest of the year to rethink how they learn,” says Tommy Chang, Boston Public Schools’ new superintendent.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Globe Magazine: You've been handing out Atul Gawande's "Cowboys and Pit Crews" [a 2011 commencement address on why the medical profession needs to be more collaborative]. How is it being received?

Tommy Chang: When I walk schools, I have heard people use the words "we're going to act more as pit crews," so it has been generally very positive. And I know there have been faculty meetings where that article has been used — this notion that nobody is an expert on everything, including doctors, and doctors have to work better as teams.

Have you seen any specific new ideas that have emerged out of this?


We did a Shark Tank-type of approach where different teams of central office folks shared their prototypes of how to support schools differently and got feedback from parents, administrators, and teachers. Every prototype was criticized, and it was completely disheartening for these senior administrators. But they took all that feedback and they re-prototyped, and that's how we came up with the "We Room," a room where we had different divisions that came together to solve problems. Principals in the morning would come and say, "I have an issue with A; I don't know how to solve it yet." A team of people solved the problem and reported back. Over the course of two days, we had 170 different dilemmas that were ultimately solved.

With all due respect to ideas from outside, how much room is there to make a shift?

What we are doing in public education in 2015 ultimately looks like what we've done over the last 200 years. The opportunity is not just shifting how and when we are learning, but how content is integrated. The reality is when you're in a job being able to pull information from different sources and integrate them and make sense of it is a critically important skill. But we don't practice that way of thinking, because our system doesn't allow for it.


Most people will probably be cynical about whether teachers and public school districts can truly be innovative. What do you say to that?

I would say that you should come and visit some schools and check out some bright spots. I remember walking in to Boston Arts Academy during my transition period, this space next to Fenway Park, where it literally looks like a big warehouse with divided walls. But when you walk into that school, you feel a completely different way of learning. Kids were learning across content areas with arts embedded in the curriculum. They were doing exhibits, they were doing performances, and all of this stuff was simultaneously happening with a small group of kids getting math support from a teacher. A very innovative way of thinking about use of time and space.

Might we see something in Boston like the Nava College Prep school (a partnership between the LA school district and Deloitte to kick-start entrepreneurial education)?

So, what's really exciting about what is going on at this school in Los Angeles, is [when I was there]we looked at some technologies and some methodologies that aren't really prevailing in [schools] — things like 3-D printing, crowdsourcing — and we're teaching these skills skils to middle and high school students, with the hope that they will actually apply these skills to build a business. That was the goal. It's being implemented this year.


How do you make personalized education work in a district the size of Boston?

It can't be done systemwide, in my opinion. It has to start classroom to classroom and maybe school to school. If you don't have a grading system that's competency-based, you can't get to personalized education. If you don't have multiple ways to access education, through books, through a lecture, through playlists, through videos, you can't get to personalized education. If you don't have flexible use of space and the ability for teachers to regroup the kids, then you can't get to personalized education.

So Boston has charter schools, innovation schools. Do you build on some of the things that you already see there?

I think there are bright spots in pilot schools, innovation schools, charter schools, but all that is governance. Just because a school is a charter school does not mean they are being innovative in the way they approach teaching and learning. Just because they are a pilot school or an innovation school doesn't mean they are being innovative in terms of teaching and learning. How a staff comes together to rethink personalized education, that's going to be the innovation, and that doesn't require changing governance. It requires a group of adults coming together to think about reinventing what's possible.

All Massachusetts schools are constrained by the tests they are judged by. How much flexibility do you or any superintendent really have?


A test is a one-time-of-year measurement of what students know; we have the rest of the year to rethink how they learn. The measurements will take care of themselves if we focus on teaching and learning the other stuff.

Michelle Rhee tried to bring outside ideas into the Washington, D.C., school district and she had a turbulent tenure. Do you worry about having a similar experience here?

No. I feel like there's a lot of hope about what is possible. Michelle did the work she felt she needed to do in Washington. My approach here in Boston will be very different. I do not want to be polarizing in this debate, I think that doesn't do good things for kids. I'm very optimistic that we can not only do good things for kids, but revive hope in public education.

Interview has been edited and condensed.


An entrepreneur presents to teachers at a 2013 LearnLaunch event.JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF/FILE

With hundreds of billions of dollars spent annually on education in the United States and education increasingly seen as the path to a good job, it's no surprise that all sorts of startups are aiming to improve the market (and make a little money along the way). Helping startups focused on educational technology is the LearnLaunch Accelerator, which itself launched in 2013, backed by private and institutional investors and some big educational publishers from Boston.

The Boston-based LearnLaunch gives companies intensive mentoring from a network of professionals and scholars, six months of free office space, and an $18,000 check (in exchange for 6 percent of common stock). Since 2013, the accelerator has worked with 26 companies — including seven that took up residence in September — and now has 37 tenant startups in its co-working space. Collectively, they've played 879 hours of Ping-Pong at the office table.


Melissa A. Corto is cofounder and CEO of Education Modified, a platform that automatically recommends learning strategies for special needs students and tracks their progress. Corto and her cofounder had been special-ed teachers in New York City, but didn't understand how to market to schools. LearnLaunch taught them that their classroom skills could be applied to business problems — like persuading potential investors to pony up. "If entrepreneurs think pitching investors is hard," she says, "they should try standing in front of teenagers teaching them to like reading."

Corto moved to Boston to be part of the accelerator, then decided to stay. She now rents space at LearnLaunch as her company grows. More than 75 teachers in Maine and New York are testing Education Modified with nearly 1,500 students.

There's one member of LearnLaunch's current class that parents will be rooting for most. Called Affordable College, it's developing a marketplace to help community college students more easily find affordable four-year schools.


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