A NEW era for the Boston Public Schools officially started when Dr. Tommy Chang assumed his role of superintendent on July 1. But Chang’s tenure really began in early April, when he arrived in Boston ready to meet and listen to school leaders and administrators, parents, community groups, and teachers. Chang, 39, says he has shaken hands with close to 1,600 people since his arrival.
This week, after absorbing all those conversations, Chang is expected to roll out his 100-day agenda, outlining priorities for the system. One critical area that seems ripe for reform: giving individual schools more autonomy over matters like staffing, curriculum, and budgets.
Success often comes with strong principals who are liberated to innovate. Many individual public schools in Boston are performing very well — the Trotter Innovation School and Orchard Gardens in Roxbury, to name two — and what they have in common is that they were granted a certain degree of freedom from the central office. Chang says he believes in school autonomy, and it will be an important challenge to give individual schools the resources and bureaucratic freedom to succeed.
But autonomy won’t bring effectiveness alone; it only presents opportunities. Extensive research identifies principals and teachers as the most powerful force to drive change in troubled schools. The good news for Chang is that some of the seeds to unleash those forces have already been planted by his predecessor, John McDonough. Thanks to McDonough’s teacher-hiring initiative — which invested principals with autonomy to hire teachers early, quickly, and regardless of seniority — school leaders are able to recruit from outside and compete for talent with high-performing districts.
And yet principals have been leaving the district at an alarming rate: 60-plus principals going into the 2015-16 school year are either new or entering their second year on the job. That’s roughly half of the schools in the system. It is a deeply troubling statistic. In order to achieve the type of sustainable academic improvements the district needs, stability at the top of the individual schools must be a priority for Chang. Principals cannot be expected to leave a mark in one or two years.
Some encouraging structural steps have already been taken. For example, Chang did away with “network superintendents,” who oversaw operations, parent concerns, and instructional issues, among other areas, in several schools. Instead, he created eight principal leader positions; they will focus only on executive coaching, instruction, and professional learning. Another quiet but significant move was a new contract structure that McDonough put in place for school leaders: Principals in their first and second year are being offered a one-year contract; principals already in the system get three- or five-year contracts, depending on their evaluations. And salaries are now higher, which may reduce turnover.
So troubling was the revolving door of principals that Mayor Marty Walsh stepped in and personally met with 14 of the new principals. Such a practice may be unusual, but hopefully it’ll send a message to the new principals that the city understands and values their crucial role . Walsh says he intends to stay involved and is planning to meet with 12 others principals in the coming weeks.
Still, Walsh needs to be careful not to veer into micromanaging. Personal connections are laudable, but the biggest help Walsh can give principals would be to negotiate contract changes with the Boston Teachers Union to give those principals more autonomy.
Talented educators — free to try new ideas — will bring the best results for the students and the city. If Chang, with help from Walsh, can recruit and empower the best leaders for Boston’s schools, they’ll set the stage for success.