It’ll take more than leaning on Boston teachers to close achievement gap
Boston’s gap grows from inequality, not teacher lapses
I agree with Samuel R. Tyler and Pam Kocher that disparities in academic achievement among Boston Public Schools students must be addressed (“Boston Teachers Union contract must address achievement gap,” Opinion, May 20).
But their analysis of why racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities exist begins and ends with a dismissive “Sure, student demographics are contributing factors.” Ignoring research showing the impact poverty, speaking English as a second language, or disability has on test scores, Tyler and Kocher blame teachers for achievement gaps.
Both empirical evidence and my own experiences as a longtime Boston Public Schools parent say that that’s wrong. It’s like telling a coach, “Sure, your kids are competing with holes in their shoes, a 50-pound backpack, and they started the race after other teams, but I’m going to punish you if they lag behind.”
Academic achievement gaps have complicated roots, but they all grow out of inequality. No teacher or school can fix that, but high-quality early childhood education, well-staffed programs for language minorities and students with special needs, and access to nurses and mental health professionals have proved to help. Spending less on students who need it most does not.
I urge city officials to invest in a contract that gives teachers what they need to help every student succeed.
Teachers need supportive administrators
In “Boston Teachers Union contract must address achievement gap,” Samuel R. Tyler and Pam Kocher provide a wealth of statistics detailing the need for a contract that demands teachers be held accountable. They also note the importance of “competitive compensation to attract and retain effective teachers.”
But competitive compensation is not enough. Teachers also must have supportive administrators. As a grandparent of a child in the West Zone Early Learning Center at the Hennigan School in Jamaica Plain, I know how effective teachers can be if they have the necessary support motivating them to make a lifelong career of helping students.
I urge our new school superintendent to work with the teachers union to agree on a contract that is “teacher-centric” — a term Tyler and Kocher use disparagingly — that will help close the achievement gap.
Point a multifocal lens on students’ and schools’ needs
I want to share some thoughts about having the Boston teacher contract address the achievement gap.
First, no district I have every worked in around the country has successfully tied teachers contract language to closing the achievement gap. Some have tried but failed.
In addition, variations in student learning metrics are universally connected to socioeconomic dynamics. Many districts use class sizes and increased hires of minority staff to reduce otherwise troublesome cultural differences that affect learning. The class-size language in the contract could become more flexible, so as to personalize teaching in those classrooms.
Further, if only 61 percent of the operating budget is directed at the employee cost of all members of the Boston Teachers Union, that is lower than many suburban districts’ budget ratios and should be addressed.
Finally, improving student learning is a management challenge, not a collective bargaining chip.
My recommendation is to examine the current teacher and administrator evaluation system. I’m confident that one would find clear weaknesses. In my own work in Massachusetts school districts, I have found many contradictions in evaluations of both administrators and teachers who score well in ratings while student performance is below standard.
The Boston teacher contract includes an evaluation system. An independent auditor should scrutinize how this system measures the effects of various teaching models. That section of the contract could become a valuable tool in assessing teaching success as measured by student learning metrics.
The writer is a former chief personnel officer and administrator in several US school districts, a former licensed labor arbitrator, and a former district auditor in the Massachusetts system.