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The Podium

How to improve Boston schools

In Boston, we have the chance of a lifetime. As we laud Mayor Tom Menino and retired School Superintendent Carol Johnson for the progress they’ve made for Boston students, we have the opportunity, with new leadership and a strong foundation, to renovate our school system into one that builds on this foundation and ensures every child graduates prepared for college, career and life.

While our graduation rate has improved, the reality is for incoming ninth graders, less than one in five will achieve any form of post-secondary success. We have a readiness problem in Boston, and we can’t fix it by fine-tuning the 19th century, industrial-era school system we currently have. Much like renovating a house, it takes more than just plastering over an aging structure. We must strip down to the load-bearing walls and assess the needs and abilities of our students — then design the new system around them.


Imagine a system that embraces these sensible reforms:

#1 — Increase Our Expectations.

To be prepared in today’s world, learners must acquire a much deeper and complex set of skills and knowledge — “new basics.” Like a strong rope, these new basics weave together deep content knowledge of traditional subjects, like math and English, with problem solving, collaboration, analysis of complex ideas and communication.

Imagine a high school experience where students learn what the Pythagorean Theorem is and, having used it in a real world setting, understand more deeply what it means. It is this combination of depth, complexity and application that define the new basics.

We need to increase our expectations about who will succeed. In order to prepare our society for its future, a vast majority of learners must attain these high skills.

#2 — Advance students based on their mastery of skills.

Our current system was built in a simpler time and perhaps for a different purpose — to sort and choose a select few for the privilege of attending college.


Imagine a system where learners move along a pathway described by accomplishments without the arbitrary time limits that define our current system. Students advance when they demonstrate a firm grasp of what they have been learning. This is Competency Based Education. In it, some learners may take more time, others less, but the focus on advancing educationally should be about attainment of skills and knowledge, not just another birthday.

#3 — Endorse Learning Anywhere.

A student-centered system recognizes that our brains don’t stop working when the final bell rings. A learning experience extended beyond the classroom credits students with skills and knowledge they obtain anywhere.

Extending time is important for most learners, but essential for those who need more and cannot provide it for themselves. In order to provide fair opportunity, our poorest must have access to the same rich opportunities.

#4 — Student-centered learning.

Research reminds us that people are different and learn in different ways. However, our current system is defined by lockstep, uniform experiences.

Imagine a system defined by a focus on competency, flexible in the pace at which students advance and the space in which they learn, and then imagine tailoring education in practical and feasible ways to meet learners’ needs and interests.

Personalized tailoring is indicated by the research, suggested by common sense and demanded in a system committed to the notion that everyone is going to get a real shot at success.


To get there, the School Committee can lead as only they can. Set high standards for the system we need and the leader that will help us develop it. Lead a citywide deliberation toward a system focused on advancing the public good, not a series of individual successes. Define the job specifications for a leader who can renovate our system, not just sustain it, and a transition plan that looks forward to what is possible, not one that relies on what has always been.

Community leaders must work together with all stakeholders toward a new system that a changing America requires. Transformational change is possible if we all play our part to achieve the system we need.

Nicholas C. Donohue is president & CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.