We Should Have Been Bolder

Michael Contompasis, STG’s Senior Field Consultant, played a central role in the far-reaching school reforms in Boston Public Schools led by Superintendent Tom Payzant from 1995 to 2006. Contompasis served as the district’s Chief Operating Officer from 1998 through 2005 before becoming superintendent for two years. Before moving to a district leadership role, Mike was the Head Master of Boston Latin School, the state’s top performing 7-12 secondary school, where he was honored as a Milken Educator in 1997.

In this three-part series Mike reflects on Boston’s many accomplishments as well as how, in retrospect, district leaders could have done more. These insights are particularly relevant for state and district leaders who have been given new tools (policy flexibility and additional funding) to turn around the bottom 5% of their schools.

Part 1 of 3

Before Tom came to Boston as Superintendent in 1995, the school system was dysfunctional. We had some solid schools, but the constant churning of CEOs made it impossible to maintain any continuity in leadership. For any long-term sustainability, a system requires continuity in leadership, a total commitment to high standards for all, and real accountability throughout the organization. Tom brought all of that to Boston.

Furthermore the planets were aligned. The Mayor was on board supporting education reform as a major priority of his administration. We had transitioned to an appointed school board which focused on a governance and policy approach rather than micromanaging and serving as stewards for their constituents. Foundations at both the national and local level provided critical financial support to Tom’s reform agenda.

A major accomplishment was that Tom aligned academics with common standards, and curriculum requirements, with a major focus on improving instruction while insisting that requirements for promotion and graduation were aligned and rigorous. We’d ended the era of allowing a thousand flowers to bloom in the system, which had led to a total freelancing approach to academics and a dumbing down of the curriculum.

Tom’s emphasis on improving teaching and learning was laser like in focus and easily transformed the academic side of the district. Insisting that principals needed to be informed and effective instructional leaders, a constant emphasis on the reform agenda as a theory of action, and Tom’s collaborative leadership style greatly improved and stabilized the academic environment in the district.

But we should have moved more strategically and faster to address the systems changes that were needed to carry out the reform agenda. We struggled with establishing the office of Chief Academic Officer as a line position with full authority and responsibility for the academic agenda. Reporting practices and protocols were thus never fully clear and transparent to those in the field charged with implementing the Superintendent’s priorities.

And we never fundamentally rethought the role and structure of central office — how to flip the paradigm so that central office’s job was to support schools, preferably with staff embedded inside the schools. That way, they could have more directly supported principals and teachers while running interference with the remaining central office bureaucracy. That’s the kind of systems changes needed to transform urban bureaucracies from compliance organizations to support organizations.

Change is hard, but failure to address the systems change needed to implement new practices can slow or even prevent meaningful district reform from taking hold – we should have been bolder.

Next: Why systems change is so central.