WebExtra: Q&A with Thomas W. Payzant

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Thomas W. Payzant

Photo by John Booz

Thomas W. Payzant

Under the 10-year leadership of Supt. Thomas Payzant, the Boston Public Schools has focused on improving instruction and in some ways has been a model for the current Chicago school administration.

For example, the district was one of the first to use instructional coaches and to give high-performing schools more authority.

As in other urban districts, achievement falls short of state and national standards. But Boston students are ahead of their peers in Chicago, according to results on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most recent comparative data available. For example, 59 percent of Boston 4th-graders scored at or above the basic level in math, compared to 50 percent of Chicago 4th-graders. Nationwide, the percentage was 76.

Payzant, the winner of numerous leadership awards, was the featured speaker at Catalyst Chicago’s 15th anniversary celebration, held Sept. 29 at the Harold Washington Library Center. Below is an edited transcript of his conversation with Publisher Linda Lenz at the event and later. Payzant is retiring at the end of this school year.

The links will take you to the appropriate section of the interview.

1. The Payzant plan
2. Improving principal leadership
3. Creating new schools
4. Closing the racial testing gap
5. Race and class
6. Improving teaching
7. Outside partners
8. Funding
9. In-district “charter” schools
10. Magnet schools

1. I called Richard Elmore, professor of educational leadership at Harvard, to ask what you had done for Boston. He said the main thing was that you had created a common vision against which everyone could measure their actions. What’s that vision?

It’s fundamentally what we’ve come to know as standards-based reform, starting with a clear set of expectations about what we want students to learn. It’s quite a radical idea because it says that all students, not just some, should meet high standards that will give them access to opportunity.

And in this day and age, for opportunity to be there, a high school diploma needs to provide access to continuing education. That’s a dramatic change from what it was a few decades ago. So, clear expectations about student learning, a curriculum that gives teachers and students access to good, rigorous, challenging content, and most importantly a support system for the people who are doing the work day in and day out. School-based professional development connected with the classroom instruction.

And then an assessment system that provides two things: accountability for results and diagnosis to make mid-course corrections.

Then staying on task. All too often, school districts will barely get one set of goals on the table and all of a sudden, there’s a new set. Then teachers and principals get cynical because they say, “We’re not even sure we understand the goals from last year. Why should we invest in these when they will probably be different next year?” So, it’s that sticking with a few things and going deep.

How big a change was this for the people in the district?

It was big because there had been no unifying anything. There were a lot of schools doing a little bit of everything and doing their own thing. That’s why we started with city-wide learning standards.

How did you get the staff to buy into this?

The one thing that people did respond to positively was that there’s going to be clarity about what we’re expected to teach. It got a little bit more controversial when we got down to curriculum. And so my initial compromise was that rather than select one or two reading programs and saying, “This is going to be it,” we narrowed it to three or four. And this is one of the mistakes I made. You have a wide range of capacity among schools. We lost a couple of years as people tried to figure out which of the three or four programs they wanted to do. We didn’t make that same mistake with the math curriculum, which came next.

So do you have “cookie cutter” schools, or is there an opportunity to meet special needs of communities?

There’s no negotiation about the learning standards and the overall expectations. My basic philosophy has always been that to the extent schools are producing good results in serving all kids, not just some kids, they have greater flexibility. Conversely, where schools have not found a way to make things work for all students, then there’s got to be more direct support and oversight from the district.

2. You said that when you started, you first focused on principals. What did you do?

I decided to focus on principals because we know from the research that the most important factor in the improvement of student achievement is the quality of the instruction in the classroom. The second is leadership — principals who know teaching and learning and can arrange help for teachers who need to improve their practice. So, in the early days, the challenge was not to fault the principals, most of whom were trained to be managers and who didn’t get judged by what they knew about teaching and learning. But rather to give them the kind of support they needed to become instructional leaders. That led to a couple things. One, a focus on the professional development of principals for instructional leadership. And two, a series of efforts to recruit good people to the principalship.

In urban school districts, that means in part developing programs within the district. It’s very, very difficult to meet all of your recruitment needs with people from outside the school district because the suburbs are very competitive in terms of salary and, in many instances, working conditions.

So, in Boston, we began on both fronts. We invited teachers and assistant principals and others to sessions once a month where they heard from principals and others about the work, the expectations and the challenge of being a principal. We began with a modest in-district program, working after school hours with a group selected from a pool of applicants. More recently, with major funding from the Broad Foundation, we sharpened the program with a full-time internship, where the principal fellow spends four full days a week in a school with one of our top principals, is involved in course work on Fridays and one or two nights a week, and attends a summer program. Anyone who completes the program gets certification and additional opportunities to apply credit towards an advanced degree at one of the local universities.

You started working on principals who had been trained for a different era. How many rose to the new challenge and how many didn’t?

I arrived in October, and in the spring I non-renewed the contracts of seven principals.

And that’s out of how many?

Oh, at that time we had about 125. That got an awful lot of attention because nobody could remember when a principal’s contract had not been renewed. And then over the nine years since then, as a result of retirements, resignations and non-renewals, 75 percent of our principals are new.

What’s the system for selecting principals?

For the first screening, Human Resources determines whether they meet the qualifications that you can determine from their applications. Are they certified, for example? Then we create a screening panel at the school where the vacancy exists. The screening panel has several teachers who are elected by the teachers at the school. The school site counsel determines a parent representative. I usually have one of my cluster leaders, who are principals themselves, convene the panel. If the school has a major partnership with a community-based organization, there may be a representative from that organization on the panel. And if it’s a high school, there will be a student.

That screening panel determines which applicants to interview, completes the interviews and then decides on three applicants that they believe are qualified and would be willing to have as their principal. The deputy superintendent who works with that school and I then interview the final three applicants. I have several choices. I can pick one of the three. If I don’t think, in consultation with the deputy, that we have a strong enough pool, I can reject all three and start over. Occasionally, I have rejected the three and gone ahead and appointed someone else. I would say 90 percent of the time, I pick one of the three candidates forwarded by the screening panel. Then the deputy and I decide whether the principal will get a one-, two- or three-year contract.

As you know, local school councils pick principals in Chicago. How would you have reacted to that kind of system?

I don’t think I would want to be superintendent of a school district where I didn’t have the final say in the appointment of principals. If I’m going to be held accountable for their performance, which I think I should be, then I’ve got to have the final authority in their appointment. I do believe very, very strongly in involving parents and school staff in the process, however.

3. Chicago is in the process of opening 100 new schools in the next several years. What should we watch out for?

Well, what happens in terms of the 100 against your 1,000?

That’s New York. We’re only 600.

You’re only 600, OK. We only have 144, so it seems a lot bigger. I think there needs to be an opportunity to try different things, but the district has to hold the educators and the students to the same set of high standards across the whole system.

4. You’ve made really impressive progress on closing the achievement gap. What have been some of the key things you’ve done to accomplish that, beyond the general reform program?

We re-dedicated ourselves on the gap closing work in the last two years. We started with conversations about race and class, which people are very uncomfortable talking about. And not to get into stereotypical explanations about why the gap exists, but to get people to the point where they understand that it is there, that it is real, why it’s there and then be able to differentiate between the responsibilities that schools have and some responsibilities that the larger community has. And get out of this blame game.

A lot of it goes to creating a culture of achievement. You can’t do that without talking about the rich array of backgrounds that children bring to the school. And then our strategies have focused on not assuming that one type of instruction will work for students all of the time. The jargon term is differentiated instruction. We looked at out of school time, after school, summer programs, Saturday programs. Using data to take a hard look at what’s working and what’s not.

5. You mentioned class. Some advocates say that there needs to be more economic integration within schools.

Well, there’s a long history around integration in Boston. My great fear in taking the superintendency was that the whole student assignment issue would still be so much in the minds of everybody that it would be very difficult to focus on teaching and learning. Fortunately, it hasn’t happened, but it’s come close on a number of occasions.

Boston was a Black and White city when I was growing up there in the ’40s and ’50s. There were hardly any Latinos, and the black population was primarily families who had been there for several centuries and, as in many northern cities, those who had migrated from the South in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Now our black population is much more diverse. We’ve got a large Haitian population. Our Latino population is no longer primarily Puerto Rican. We’ve got Dominicans and every Central American country.

So, it’s getting people to think about diversity in different ways and then to show people, by getting them into schools, that schools can work. We’re starting with the parents of 3- and 4- and 5-year-olds.

Any success?

Not as fast as I would like. You get four or five couples with young children have them go visit schools, so they don’t feel like they’re all alone. And it’s starting to take hold. But there’s still a lot of work to do.

6. You’ve been largely about improving instruction. You can do that by (1) getting better teachers, (2) taking the teachers you have and making them better or (3) getting better circumstances for the teachers you have. How far can you go with each of those in terms of producing improved instruction?

It starts with thinking about getting the right people into the system and getting them to stay. We lose so many teachers in the first five years that you’ve got this constant churn. Then, how do you keep teachers who have been in the system 10, 15, 20, 25 years motivated to keep getting better?

You’ve got an hour glass situation in most urban school districts, with a big bulge at the top where teachers are about ready to retire and a big bulge at the bottom. For the ones at the top, it’s trying to get teachers out of the isolation of their classrooms and creating an environment where they talk about what’s happening in their classrooms and the results they’re getting with students. We started by getting common planning time and getting teachers to look at student work. That didn’t happen over night. We had our instructional coaches facilitate those sessions. Over time, teachers got real good at agreeing that this was level-three work, and this was level-two work. There were a few fours and too many ones.

And then it moved to, “Could I come in and take a look at what you’re doing in your classroom? I’ve got a couple kids I can’t reach.” And then have conversation. There’s a trust level that builds up because this isn’t about evaluation. It’s professionals talking about their practice and taking it public.

That then evolved into what we call collaborative coaching and learning where the coach will take a group of teachers for a six- to eight-week cycle. They’ll look at data from, say, English language arts. The kids are struggling in a certain area. They’ll decide to focus on that area and what can we do with different instructional strategies. The coach teaches a demo lesson. Everybody watches and there’s a debriefing about one lesson. Then each of the others in the group does a demo lesson, and the same thing happens.

We’ve got an agreement with the teachers union now. Nobody will be forced to do a demo lesson, and I’m OK with that. But they do have to participate in the process of observing their colleagues, participating in the pre-conference, the debriefing, the data analysis, and what’s working and what’s not.

This can’t be used for evaluation. That would just foul up the whole process and the trust. Now, we’re trying to take it to scale across disciplines.

That’s the kind of professional development that spans the veterans and the first-year teachers and everybody in between. We’re betting this is the way to go, regardless of the school, the subject, the grade level.

7. You’ve had some phenomenal help from a non-profit organization called The Boston Plan for Excellence. It raises money for you, but as I’ve been reading, it’s done research and development and managed some programs. Are there things you could not have done were it not for that outside organization?

I’m a great fan of having outside organizations that are independent of the school district but have a great interest in the whole district improving and succeeding.

But there’s tension there because some people in the system
think they’re having undo influence. Well, I love it because they push and prod and enable me to do some things that I couldn’t otherwise do.

Such as?

The roll-out strategy for our early literacy work created four cohorts of schools. The Boston Plan took the lead and created a competition for the first cohort of schools. It made recommendations about which schools should start and then put in some of the initial coaches. We were both involved, but it would have been a lot harder for me to get that moving as quickly if I had had to do it all from inside.

I have to calm people down in the system and say, “No, they’re not overstepping their bounds.” And occasionally, I have to push back and say, “Wait a minute. You went a little bit too far.”

8. Question from the audience: At what level is the city of Boston being funded by the State?

Not high enough. It’s about 30 percent. That’s true throughout Massachusetts — in most cities and towns the primary source of revenue is local property taxes. And, of course, there’s wide variation. The good news is that in Boston, where there’s been growth and development, the tax base has expanded.

9. Question from the audience: The big enemy of the kind of staff collaboration you’ve described is time. I’m wondering if you came up with any strategies to give teachers more time?

Well, I’ve got a dispute with the teachers union right now over pilot schools, which are like in-district charters. The way they get approved is through a joint labor-management steering committee that the union president and I co-chair. We each have veto power.

We have a whole bunch of pilot schools that have started from scratch. My real hope was that we would get some conversion schools. Well, we ran into a buzz saw just before we got into contract negotiations the year before the Democratic National Convention came to Boston. A school voted to go pilot, and a new union president vetoed it. We’ve been trying to deal with that ever since.

There’s a deep clash of core values. The core value that the union has is that there ought to be equitable extra pay for any extra time. And my core value is that if a faculty wants to go pilot and have more flexibility, they ought to be able to do it. Nobody is forced to teach there. If they know they’re going to have a couple of extra days of professional development or extra time after school and not get compensated at union rate, they don’t have to go work there.

Now, a lot of those pilot schools do pay extra, but they don’t do it at union scale.

10. Question from the audience about magnet schools.

We have a school choice system. All of the high schools are citywide. Then the city is divided into three zones, and you get choice within the zone where you live for elementary and middle schools, or K-8 schools. So that gives people about 25 to 30 elementary schools to choose from, seven or eight middle schools, and two or three K-8s. So you don’t have magnet schools like you did in the ’70s and ’80s, where there was just a few of them. All of the schools have themes. So, there is competition. Schools are trying to say, “This is what is special about our school” and go out and recruit. But that’s choice system across the entire district.

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