Boston's Golden Decade

Boston’s “Golden Era”- 1995-2005

In the context of big-city school systems, beset as they are by the challenges of budget, leadership stability, struggling families, political in-fighting, union-management disaccord and the legacy of racism and poverty, Boston experienced what one might call a decade of unique opportunity and favorable circumstances. From 1995-2005 the city was home to a ground-breaking union contract, the schools had the support and attention of a new, “Education Mayor”, and perhaps most importantly, enjoyed a virtually unprecedented sense of continuity with the tenure of Thomas Payzant, a highly-respected superintendent and former Assistant Secretary of Education. A new School Committed, appointed by the Mayor, was anxious to bring the city’s policies in line with a recently-passed state Education Reform Act and to help counter any potential impact from the new Charter School movement. A series of major grants from The Carnegie Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided funding for a sustained focus on literacy in all classrooms, the transformation of several large, failing high schools into small autonomous schools and the development of a new “Pilot” (in-district charter) schools to push for innovation. Payzant revamped the graduation standards, established a “cluster system” to be more attentive to the management of schools stretched across the city, convened a high school renewal think tank of inside and outside players and pressed for more involvement from the higher education community.

Three life-long educators who shared aspects of that decade of experience in Boston gather to look back and recall impressions, and possible lessons.

Pedro Antonio Noguera is a professor in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University and has published on topics such as urban school reform, conditions to promote student achievement, youth violence, the impact of school choice and race and ethnic relations in American society.  He has been a classroom teacher, has advised youth organizations and school districts on closing the achievement gap and has worked with charter school start-ups in inner city neighborhoods. Dr. Noguera served on the ASCD Task Force on the Education of the Whole Child and serves on the board of the Alliance for Excellent Education.  His books include Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools and  The Trouble With Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education.

Deborah Meier has spent four decades working in public education as a teacher, principal, writer and public advocate. The elementary and secondary schools she helped create in New York City and Boston are considered exemplars of performance-based home-grown standards. She is the author of popular books such as In Schools We Trust and The Power of Their Ideas. She is currently a senior scholar at NYU's Steinhart School of Education, and in 1987 was awarded a McArthur Foundation "Genius" Award, the first educator to be so honored.

Larry Myatt was the Founder of Fenway High School, a pioneer in Boston’s small schools movement, and was its Headmaster for twenty years before accepting an assignment to advise Boston's High School Renewal Initiative. Presently he is as a principal in the Education Resources Consortium, after serving as Senior Fellow for Leadership and Education Ventures at the School of Education/CPS at Northeastern University. He co-founded Boston's Center for Collaborative Education and designed and directed the Greater Boston Principal Residency Network  from 2000-2008.  Dr. Myatt is a recipient of the Harry S. Levitan Prize from Brandeis University for career accomplishment in education.


Tell us please what each of you was doing in Boston during this time period?

LM- At the outset, I was on a leave to work at Brown University in Ted Sizer’s Essential Schools shop, which was then in the process of merging with the new Annenberg Institute, after Walter Annenberg’s $500 million gift to public education. I came back to Fenway High School, at the time known as Fenway Middle College, to be part of taking the school in a new direction with the advent of the Mass Ed Reform legislation.

DM- I came part-time in ’95 to get Mission Hill going as a new Pilot school, and full time in ’96 to be its founding principal. My arrival came shortly after Tom Payzant began his administration. Surprisingly, the mayor invited me to lunch to talk schools -I think Tom may have suggested it- and the Boston Globe was spending a good deal of time reporting on the education movement in Boston. It was an interesting time.  That media attention and political energy helped create a context for people coming together around ideas for good schools.

PN- I was in Boston and Cambridge, working out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education from 2000-2003. I led a project called Pathways to Opportunity.  I had the chance to work closely with Tom Payzant and some of his deputies on high school reform initiatives. I was mainly involved at the Jeremiah Burke HS, the O'Bryant exam school, The English HS, what was then the unified Dorchester HS, and a few of the new small schools. I also worked some with Felix Arroyo from the school Committee, working on some outreach efforts in the Latino community.


What do you see as some of the potential forces at work in Boston out at the outset of the Payzant era?

DM- Well certainly we have to mention the agreement among the Superintendent, School Committee and the teachers union, and pushed by the Mayor and his people. Menino was a new Mayor and proclaimed himself very much focused on improving the schools. And charters were new and both the school district and union were anxious about what that might mean. But an agreement of that kind, to allow for schools with a high degree of autonomy, and a process to create more, was unprecedented.

LM- We had some schools in the city threatened with the loss of accreditation at the time, so the Mayor stepped in. And he had recently won the ability to appoint people to the School Committee. Of course that cut both ways – a loss in terms of the democratic back-and-forth people had come to expect, but a much more orderly policy environment in which to focus on improving the schools. Also, there were rumblings of privatization in several Eastern cities which I think got the attention of the union and there was anxiety that some good schools might leave the district for state charters, taking families and dollars with them. It was quite astounding to have them all on the same page.

DM- For me, that Pilot agreement was clearly the most important factor. It was astounding.  In fact, it was at first the union's "baby".... highly unusual. I think it had the greatest potential to change schools, and in a way that could be led by the educators themselves.

PN- Small schools and extended autonomies seemed to pay off at the schools with strong leaders.  Other schools were foundering and not receiving enough support to my mind.   I was struck by how little learning and sharing of practices was occurring among the schools. There was very little time for talk among them. Even when schools were located in the same building there was very little exchange of information.  I recall presenting research findings to Boston high school principals and was struck by how few questions were asked when I explained the disconnect between what the principals thought they were doing and what was actually happening in classrooms.  I was also struck by how little accountability there was from the central office. I also had some contact with the Mayor's office in discussions about the implementation of the 2 - 6 initiative.  I was somewhat critical of what I saw as lack of coordination at school sites and lack of attention to quality control.

LM- I can’t disagree at all with Pedro’s points about the differing conditions. Its related somewhat to Deborah’s comment on the climate -the first generation of pilot schools, through the late 90’s, were largely created around a strong sense of mission and vision, unlike many of the latter Pilot schools, which seemed focused mainly on getting out from under the yoke of central office and/or union strictures.  And at the time collaborators such as the Center for Collaborative Education and the Private Industry Council, and later on Jobs for the Future, were getting involved with convening, technical assistance, and policy push to get at some of those shortcomings.


One of the hallmarks of the Payzant administration was a focus on the high schools, including re-making several schools into smaller ones. Was this a good thing to focus on, and what seemed to work?

LM- I think the push for small schools was definitely a good thing, and a way to address some of the scale, culture and quality issues that he refers to. As Headmaster of Fenway, we had a high percentage of students coming from other high schools that were unsafe and unable to provide good teaching and support. The idea of scale- for knowing students, working together as a staff and making key decisions- gave us a fighting chance to make change. For me, that was a way to re-professionalize the schools, creating an on-going conversation among teachers and leaders. At one point, there was even talk at the School Committee level about making all of the high schools into units of 500 or less

DM- I’ve always been a believer in small settings. We saw what they could do in New York and elsewhere. I like to be able to have the faculty gather around one large table. That’s the best setting for making decisions about teaching and about kids.

PN- I think the development of the new small schools, especially the Pilot schools, was one of the most innovative and effective reforms implemented during this period. Several of these schools, particularly the ones headed by Larry, Debbie and Linda Nathan (Boston Arts) were outstanding and demonstrated what was possible when you gave a group of dynamic educators a chance to work together around a common vision.  However, the big disappointment for me, and a lost opportunity, was that there was so little sharing and exchange of ideas between the Pilots and the traditional schools.   As far as I could tell, they did not even meet together.  When I shared the findings from the pathway study with principals, a study that deliberately included a variety of schools including charters and pilots, I was surprised and disappointed to see that principals from all types of schools did not participate in the discussion.  This inability to think about schools can learn from each other is still occurring today and it is one of the reasons why our best schools, traditional public or charter, do not serve as a catalyst for further change.


What role were the colleges and universities able and willing to play in the equation?

DM- In terms of active support, the universities were not as involved as one might suspect, given their abundance in the city. Pedro’s extensive project out of Harvard was somewhat of an exception. At Mission Hill we did get student teaching interns from a variety of colleges, many of who were fabulous, and some of whom remain as full-time veterans at the school. Vito Perrone at Harvard Graduate School of Education was an incredibly helpful ally, but not necessarily because of his Harvard connection. Eleanor Duckworth from HGSE taught a course at Mission Hill for several years, and Northeastern University, when James Frazier was the Dean, provided subsidized courses for our teachers to get special education certification.   CCE, CES, and Ted Sizer, at Brown during that period, gave us energy and support.

LM- I recall that Pedro and the team of researchers he assembled pushed hard to pay attention to climate in the high schools, especially through the students-as-researchers initiative. He was asking some different and hard questions. He helped to get them audiences with the Mayor, Superintendent, principals, etc. They had a lot to say about students’ poor connections with adults and anonymity in the big high schools.

PN- Through my project I was able to get a lot of folks into the schools, asking questions, listening to what young people had to say, and hopefully bringing in some fresh air.  Through that program, students were engaged in researchers in their own schools and were asked to collect data in a scholarly way related to school culture.  They did this through survey research, interviews and observations, and they learned to present it factually but with heart.  I wrote two papers on that work, “How Listening to Students Can Help Schools to Become Safe and Transforming High Schools”.

LM-  As a progressive principal, it was great to have Pedro and university folks’ work to help in convincing the superintendent and school committee that we needed to do something about the big high schools. I think Tom really understood what kids were saying and really had his heart in the small schools effort to the extent it was feasible politically and policy-wise at the time. I regret that his successors have not kept that flame alive and that the Gates Foundation abandoned the work so quickly and with such little understanding of its dynamics. Money has been scarce for this kind of complicated work so when big players like Gates bounce from one good idea to the next, it hurts.


The Payzant Era coincided precisely with the national frenzy on testing, standards and alignment. Looking back, could there have been any other way? Did it pay off?

PN- When I was working with several high schools in Boston it was clear that the students were not being taught the material that would be covered on the MCAS.  I said this to the superintendent during a debate on Beacon Hill. I asked, "How can students be held accountable for material that you know they haven't been taught?"  Tom said that he felt the emphasis on testing would force schools to improve over time.  I suppose he is right to some degree given that Massachusetts is recognized as the leader on the NAEP and its standards are seen as the most rigorous in the country.

But there have been casualties in their pursuit of higher standards.  The first year the MCAS was given over 6,000 students failed.  Many of these were kids in big high schools in Boston, like Madison Park, where 50% of the seniors in the first year failed the MCAS.  The administration there readily admitted that students weren't being prepared to take the exam and felt they didn't have the time to address the poor teaching at the school.  Rather than working on improving instruction, they brought in Kaplan test-prep courses.  There were also schools where we found students who were receiving A's in their classes but couldn't pass the MCAS.  I saw very little being done in BPS to address the lack of alignment between the curriculum, teaching and the assessments. If the choice was to make testing as priority, which we could debate, even then the systems were not put into place and quality instruction was not addressed.

DM- I think that Payzant came into the job with a position on testing that was quite compatible with my own. What's interesting is that he also tolerated a test-boycott that lasted 4-5 years by Mission Hill parents.  He even came to speak to them--and the staff--about it, doing his best to explain why he thought testing was the right place to invest, but respected the MH community’s decision. But he chose not to stand against the pro-testing people locally who were quite extreme in their thinking that testing was going to expose poor teaching and we could go from there.


When you look back at this time period, what are the one or two things that really were helpful in improving the  schools, what stands out?

LM- I think Tom really engaged around the complicated policy and programming issues in a way that not all superintendents are willing to do. It’s often ceded to people further down the food chain, but he was very much in the fray. Something really smart that Tom also set in motion with Kathi Mullin from the High School Renewal office was establishing a “cross-functional” work group to involve all of the departments in supporting the birth of the new small high schools. In that way, they could be helpers instead of resistors, and they had permission to innovate. That way, the success of the schools and the HSR Office was their success as well. Before that, they were often either by-standers or unsupportive, since the work was different and potentially made their lives more complicated.

PN- I think the thing that was most helpful was Tom’s willingness to experiment.  He was not stuck doing things the same old way.  He was open to new approaches and he willing to work with people from non-traditional educational backgrounds.

DM- Without question, the greatest opportunity was having the autonomy to make our own decisions, through the Pilot Schools contract, and the support and conversation with our allies among the Pilot Schools --Young Achievers and Fenway, in particular, were CRITICAL. Sadly, the union-management alliance didn't hold up as well as we needed it to. Many people saw the pilots as the administration’s vehicle to introduce longer hours without compensation. I think it became divisive. It would have required a great deal more conversation among all the parties involved, but no one really stayed committed to convening that conversation.

LM- I agree with Deborah, and Pedro’s earlier comment - we never went deep enough to create the real capillaries between the district’s procedures and policies and those of the Pilots, and build relationships around that, but it was remarkable that we created a space for autonomy and innovation in the district with the support, leadership and involvement of front-line teachers and the community. If you look at the schools that did well, and are still doing well, they have incredible teacher leadership, and strong boards with ties to the community. The other great thing was the High School Renewal effort. It had all the right pieces and players, and was on its way to re-making the secondary school landscape, including a rich portfolio of alternative options to get at the drop-out issues. Unfortunately, it was a job that required a decade, and the new administration after Tom did not pursue that work.