Just under a year after Tommy Chang abruptly left the city as its schools superintendent, Boston Public Schools has a new leader. The Boston School Committee voted 5-2 on Wednesday to offer the job to former Minnesota education commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who has accepted the position.
Cassellius has a strong record and ample experience as an educational leader, primarily at the state rather than district level. She emerged from a field of three finalists — the others were Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and Oscar Santos, headmaster of Cathedral High School in Boston.
Cassellius quickly became the favorite for the most vocal education stakeholders — the ones most able to organize and engage on the district’s rushed timetable. She earned their support by approaching the process very cautiously, offering few policy specifics and avoiding difficult subjects, like school consolidation. Other than saying she’s opposed to using standardized test results for “individual high-stakes decisions” — a position that immediately aligned her with the teachers union — she stayed away from describing how she would address persistent achievement gaps or other pressing issues in the district.
“I’m familiar working in a political environment,” she said at one point in her interview. “I know when to say something, when not to say something. Who to say it to, when not to say it at all. I learned real quickly not [to] say anything unless you have a win in it for kids.”
One can see why Mayor Marty Walsh — who’s the ultimate decider, since he appoints members of the school committee — would be thrilled with someone like Cassellius, who seems to understand intuitively the political realities of the Boston job.
On the other hand, perhaps the candidates should have gone through more public scrutiny. The Boston Herald reported on Friday that Cassellius’s inability to close racial achievement gaps in Minnesota, when she was the state’s education secretary, led to a landmark lawsuit.
Whatever happened there, Boston students deserve a bold and brave leader now, someone willing to have difficult public conversations and overhaul the district in profound ways. There can be no more pretending that all is well for all kids in the city. Roughly 33,000 students in the district attend a school rated in the bottom 25 percent of schools statewide. The system keeps failing these Boston students and setting them up for a dismal future.
That’s what should have been the priority for the school committee members. Instead, it was Cassellius’s apparent political intuition and potential for fixing strained community relations that tipped the scales for her.
Whether she can be healing and bold at the same time remains to be seen. What’s clear is that Cassellius has tough decisions ahead of her. BPS should not back away from tests, a key metric to assess performance and keep schools accountable. Instead, the district needs a laser focus on “fragile” schools, or those that need intervention.
Additionally, BPS absolutely needs to embrace MassCore, the state’s curriculum framework; address diversity at the city’s exam schools by reforming their admissions process; and, yes, attempt to reorganize school start times again. What Boston needs are better schools — with or without a kumbaya circle.
“Minnesota nice” may have gotten Cassellius the job, but she’d better have her “Minnesota ice” ready when she starts. That’s what tackling Boston’s many thorny and intractable issues is going to take.