Are we on track to finding the next great leader of the Boston Public Schools? Or maybe not?
The search for a replacement for former superintendent Tommy Chang has turned into a mystery. There has been no public process to speak of, and that is beginning to make some people nervous. It isn’t clear whether there are a lot of contenders or a few, or whether the pool of applicants will be strong or weak.
What’s clear is this: Our public schools — our longstanding, insoluble municipal crisis — stand at a major crossroads. An ambitious plan to renovate (and close) schools is in the works. A recent Globe study of the city’s valedictorians highlighted the weak college preparation of an alarming number of city high schools. The battle over exam school admissions continues to simmer, and a push to replace the appointed School Committee with an elected one — rebranded as an issue of “equity” — has begun to churn.
Despite the challenges, Mayor Marty Walsh said last week he is confident that the job is one of the premier education jobs in the nation, and predicted that a new superintendent will be in place in time to open school in September.
“We have made gains in the School Department over the past five years,” Walsh said. “It’s not good enough, because we’re still having this conversation about equity, inclusion, diversity, accessibility, transparency. They’re important words, and they’re not just words: They have important meanings to the kids in our district.”
A Globe story by James Vaznis last week suggested that the search is significantly behind schedule, raising the specter of a second year under interim school superintendent Laura Perille. Nothing against Perille, who is winning praise for taking on longstanding bureaucratic issues, but major changes require a permanent leader, someone who can build support for change and will be around to be held accountable.
Walsh claimed that the search is only “three or four weeks” behind the 2015 process that resulted in hiring Chang. That’s debatable, but it isn’t the only issue here.
Though Chang’s relative inexperience was seen as a major factor in his struggles in Boston, Walsh doesn’t seem to regard having run a school system as an ironclad requirement for his replacement.
“If you want to work in a very complicated district with a lot of challenges, if you want to go to do great things in education, this is the testing ground,” Walsh told me. “It’s really a great place to learn how to be a superintendent.”
Boston is a great place to learn to be a superintendent? Boston is a place where superintendents can easily get eaten alive. It’s a city where divisions of race and class have played out in the schools for decades. Not only that, there is considerable feeling in educational circles that Chang suffered from a chronic lack of support, that Walsh is simply not willing to expend the political capital that real change in the schools will require.
Don’t get me wrong; I think Walsh is right that Boston is a highly attractive job for a superintendent. But the system has had four superintendents in the last decade — counting two interims — and that turnover has consistently stalled momentum for major change.
From where I sit, the Boston Public Schools need two things right now. We need a superintendent with a real vision for how to educate a student body that is diverse in every conceivable sense of the term, someone who has a real sense of where the schools should go, beyond bromides about tackling the bureaucracy. And it needs the political will that will allow decisions that may be unpopular in the moment to be carried out.
Running the schools is one of the three or four hardest jobs in town. But in that challenge lies a great opportunity. The question is whether this city is finally ready to seize it.