New BPS superintendent Tommy Chang should be bold

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s inauguration was 18 months ago, but the Walsh era in Boston Public Schools truly began this week with Dr. Tommy Chang’s first day as superintendent. As we stand on the threshold of this new period, it is time to put aside old ways in BPS and find the courage necessary to seek the profound changes our students deserve. 

“I should have been bolder.”

Michael Contompasis wrote those words in November 2013 about his long tenure as BPS’ chief operating officer and superintendent. Chang should remember these words as he embarks on his journey at the helm of BPS. At the same time, Mayor Walsh should be an insistent advocate for nothing less than radical change. 

We need boldness, not more of the incremental change we’ve seen for the past 20 years. As recent Census Bureau data reveal, there is more money available for Boston’s schools than for any other big city in the country. While BPS needs more money, a fundamental redesign of the system is even more important.

At $20,502 per student, Boston was the biggest per pupil spender on education in 2013 among the country’s 100 largest school districts. Only the country’s 74th-largest district by number of students, Boston more than doubles the per pupil spending of much larger districts like Miami-Dade, Houston, and San Diego.

It is easy to explain BPS spending more by citing Boston’s high cost of living and the need to pay higher salaries. But our cost of living isn’t double that in Miami, Houston, or San Diego. Some additional cost is due to the high price of health insurance here, but the cost of employee benefits doesn’t explain it either. 

BPS spends 78 percent of its budget on salary and benefits, wisely investing in teachers and others who are most responsible for improving teaching and learning. Why are we not getting the full benefit of that investment? It is an urgent question as BPS cannot continue on its current path of spending more and more for salaries while getting only modest academic improvement. We should ask what must change in order to unleash our teachers to drive student performance. 

From the first year of the Menino administration to the first year of the Walsh administration, BPS’ budget more than doubled, while enrollment dropped 10 percent. We’re not seeing the type of dramatic improvement one would expect with such an infusion of money. Students still don’t have the tutors, technology, arts and music programs, and longer school days they need to prepare adequately for higher education and careers.

More resources must be allocated to overcome the effects of poverty in schools, but despite BPS’ efforts to do exactly that with a weighted per pupil spending formula, poverty remains a major factor in student success. High-need students often have much lower test scores, graduation rates, and college enrollment than their more affluent peers. 

Will the new superintendent spend BPS’s resources differently to get better outcomes? Is he willing to break with the past strategy of incrementalism and instead seek bold changes? All of us who care about Boston’s future need the answers to be yes. 

The superintendent’s agenda should include closing schools where there is excess capacity and building new schools in strategic areas, giving school leaders increased autonomy and flexibility, cutting transportation costs, creating clear pathways for children from elementary through high school, and reducing the role and power of the central office. He should also push hard for the state legislature to give school leaders the powers they need to speed the pace and scale of change and use the upcoming renegotiation of the teacher’s union contract to, among other things, link teachers’ compensation to their performance, not years of service or academic credits.

Walsh and Chang have the opportunity to reshape Boston Public Schools. With their passionate commitment to public education, they should be a powerful duo. And they should know that when the inevitable controversies erupt, there is a city filled with residents who will have their backs. Business and philanthropic leaders as well as the education reform community hunger for strong leadership and stand ready to assist. 

Bold change isn’t easy. It is, however, essential. 

Originally published in the Boston Globe.

Read the article here.

Marty Walz, a former state legislator from Boston, is chair of the Advisory Council of Democrats for Education Reform in Massachusetts.