Now that Martin J. Walsh has triumphed in the Boston mayoral election, I hope he avoids the common temptation to indiscriminately dismantle programs implemented by his predecessor, and that he firmly commits to the Acceleration Agenda, the five-year transformation plan for the Boston Public Schools. Adopted by the school committee in 2009, this vision accurately targets several areas of improvement that the system needs to address. Mayor-elect Walsh — and the new superintendent — will, however, need to give more attention to how to achieve those goals effectively and equitably if they hope to create a public school system where all children succeed.
The plan’s “whats” include strengthening teacher and school leadership, increasing cross-school learning, extending learning time, implementing more rigorous instruction, and creating multiple pathways to graduation. But each of these important goals can only be achieved through strategic “hows” that involve partnerships and collaboration between students, teachers, schools, communities, businesses, and community organizations.
Without doubt, fortifying teacher and school leadership is crucial. But professional development in the city’s public schools should be available and customized to meet the needs of individual schools that serve specific populations, such as students with disabilities and English language learners (ELLs).
In Boston, there are a number of “high-flying” schools that perform excellently with struggling students, but there are few opportunities for the educators in those schools to exchange their best practices with district colleagues, particularly those in “low-flying” schools. Schools need opportunities to learn from each other, including extending the school day for cross-learning opportunities and using technology to archive critical tools and assets. Most importantly, resources must be equitably distributed, particularly those that provide external learning opportunities.
We don’t need school-day expansion so kids have more time to complete worksheets. We need longer school days so that students have the opportunity to engage in activities that help them develop critical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills, all of which underlie the Common Core standards, which require students to apply the knowledge they’ve mastered to problem solving.
A crucially important need is rigorous instruction. In the past, central office-level practitioners with real-world experience developed curriculum, or on-the-ground practitioners with little external experience developed it at the school level. Increasingly, 21st-century school systems are implementing a hybrid strategy where local communities articulate standards and career pathways, and then a combination of publishing companies, community groups, and consultants develop a framework at the school level to serve specific populations.
Creating multiple pathways to graduation is another critical “what.” While we emphasize the Common Core standards, we must also understand that students have a variety of interests, including the performing arts, business, law, communications, and technology, and each one offers a legitimate route to graduation. Thus, K–12 education must have a systemic, ongoing relationship with both secondary education and the business community, since these alternative paths involve external learning opportunities with external mentors.
To enact these recommendations, the Boston Public School system cannot operate in isolation; it requires a relationship to the higher- and early-education communities, the local community, local businesses, and community organizations. While many urban school districts can justly claim that their students have attained basic-level knowledge and skills, no large urban district can say that all of its students have developed the abilities they will need to be effective citizens in a complex, diverse society or workers in a global, creative economy. We also know that schools alone cannot ensure that all students have the resources and supports they need to reach that level. Districts, in partnership with community agencies and organizations, need to provide a comprehensive web of learning support.
What is the “how” mechanism that would allow these different sectors to coordinate and align their work and contribute to the infrastructure necessary to effectively implement this work? It stems from mayoral leadership and flows from a superintendent who simultaneously looks inwardly and outwardly, seeking the partnerships necessary to provide richer learning opportunities inside and outside the school.
It also requires a superintendent who views community engagement not as an isolated “meet and greet” opportunity but as a consensus reaching-mechanism for communicating ideas, and for offering feedback and involvement in collaborative decision making. The Boston Public Schools are a national leader that other systems follow. Although there are still some persistent achievement gaps by race, gender, students with disabilities, and ELLs, test scores have steadily improved. But it’s simply not good enough. Because while the district has made remarkable progress, the local economy has changed dramatically, and higher education demands and expectations have increased over the last two decades. The “silver bullet” mentality must be replaced by an evidence-based approach that strengthens the whole system.
This commentary first appeared on WBUR's Cognoscenti, the Boston NPR station's ideas and opinions page.