As Carol Johnson prepares to step down after six tumultuous years as Boston’s superintendent of schools, her job performance has become a central issue in the city’s first competitive mayoral race in a generation. Johnson’s critics portray her as an ineffective and indecisive steward, while her admirers say she’s been an innovative and compassionate leader. So how’d she do, really?
Six years ago, after his pick to lead Boston’s public school system backed out at the last minute, Mayor Tom Menino launched an intensive search. He wanted a leader who could build on the progress the school district had made during the 11 years that Thomas Payzant had run it, a period when the city’s schools had begun to shrug off the misery that followed the desegregation crisis of the 1970s and everything that had come afterward—the white flight, the urban struggles, the political squabbles. And soon enough he found somebody who seemed to fit the bill exactly: Carol Johnson, who’d built a national reputation running the schools in Minneapolis and Memphis. “She’s truly the person to bring the system to the next level,” Menino said when she first arrived.
But in the fevered life of an urban school system, six years is an eternity, long enough for hope to turn to frustration and encouragement to doubt. Menino is preparing to leave office, and Johnson has just let it be known that she intends to step down. So as Boston’s public schools suddenly look toward an unpredictable future, it’s worth examining where they are now, and what Johnson’s role has been in shepherding them there—especially because in recent years Johnson has become the target of tough questions from a legion of critics. They take her to task for the departure of a string of high-ranking aides, and for her habit of floating ideas in public before they’ve been fully vetted. They point to regular headlines over some screwup or another: the chronically late school buses that drew howls of anger from parents and principals in 2011, or the cafeteria freezers holding food stamped with long-expired “use-by” dates. They still take umbrage at her behavior last year, when it was reported that Rodney Peterson, a headmaster at the O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science, had been charged with assaulting his wife, and it turned out that Johnson had initially written a letter of support to the judge and overlooked his regular absences from the school. And, in particular, they wonder how effective she’s been at bringing the schools “to the next level.”
Johnson has indeed struggled at times to master the art of selling school improvement in Boston, and has proposed changes she’s been forced to walk back under fire. In 2009 she floated a new plan for changing the schools’ assignment zones, only to withdraw the proposal after it came under withering criticism for excluding parents, failing to create neighborhood schools, and not providing kids in poor neighborhoods better access to quality schools. To save money, she proposed cutting the district’s longtime practice of busing students to private and parochial schools, only to have the city’s chief legal counsel determine that this would violate state law. The following year, she deliberated publicly for months about closing and merging schools, a process that was gut-wrenching for parents and teachers alike. In 2011, to much hue and cry from teachers, she proposed moving Boston Latin Academy, but then axed the idea when it turned out the space she had in mind wouldn’t meet the school’s needs.
Meanwhile, teachers in the city went for two years without a contract, in no small part because Johnson and the Boston Teachers Union president, Richard Stutman, could not come to terms over Johnson’s insistence that time be added to the school day. When the two sides finally signed a new contract last year, it was missing the extra-time provisions Johnson had sought.
Then there’s this plain fact: Half of the Boston public schools measured by the state are today designated “Level 3,” meaning they perform in the bottom 20 percent of schools statewide. That’s why the debate this spring over a far-reaching school-assignment revamp grew so heated. Many parents are convinced that their school choices are too limited.
As a result of all this, the public spotlight on Johnson has grown increasingly harsh over the past couple of years. When the school committee, after a series of glowing job reviews, gave her the lackluster equivalent of a “C” last year, the Globe columnist Lawrence Harmon was quick to pounce, chiding her for “administrative pratfalls.” The Globe’s editorialists scolded her for “perform[ing] below expectations.” And the public image of BPS has become so precarious that City Councilor John Connolly believes it’s a good political strategy to build his current run for mayor around the state of the schools. To listen to the conversation about public education in Boston, you’d think it had made barely any progress since those grim days more than two decades ago when Mike Barnicle was deriding the school committee as the “Boston Fool Committee” and City Councilor James Byrne was grumbling, “No matter what measure you use…it’s a bleak and dismal picture.”
But here’s the interesting thing: A close examination of Johnson’s time running Boston’s public schools reveals a leader who’s nothing like the caricature that’s recently emerged. Not only are the schools vastly improved since the 1990s, they’re also in undeniably better shape than they were when Johnson took over six years ago. And that’s because, even with her missteps, Johnson has worked quietly and assiduously to address some of the toughest problems urban schools face; she’s built a broad base of civic and community support for academic, arts, and sports programs; and she’s put BPS in a stronger position to compete for the loyalty of Boston’s parents.
It certainly hasn’t been easy—which is why there’s a plaque hanging over the desk of Johnson’s unflappable assistant, Barbara Connolly, that features a memorable Ross Perot quote. “School reform,” it reads, “is the hardest, meanest, bloodiest thing I’ve ever tried to do.”
Johnson, who is 65, grew up in Brownsville, Tennessee, a small town about 60 miles northeast of Memphis. Her mother taught elementary school, and her father owned a barbershop and a pool hall. She was the third of nine children, a serious kid devoted to church and her studies.
The schools in Brownsville were segregated, so Johnson, who is African American, got an early lesson in how school systems can tilt the playing field against their students. She and her classmates were issued textbooks stamped “Obsolete,” hand-me-downs from the white schools in the area. Kindergarten was reserved for the white kids. “We were very aware that there were different districts, one for white kids, one for black kids,” she says. “Though I don’t think we perseverated on it. We just focused on getting our best done.”
Johnson’s voice still hints at her upbringing in the South, but as a professional she’s very much a product of where she moved after college: Minneapolis. She and her husband, Matthew, who died this past March, raised their three children there. She began her career in education there, as a substitute teacher in the second and third grades. It’s where she decided, almost on a whim, to accompany a colleague to some graduate education classes at the University of Minnesota—and wound up earning a doctorate in school administration. And it’s where, in 1997, she landed her first high-profile job, as superintendent of the Minneapolis schools.
The system she took on was ailing academically. The year before, 91 percent of black eighth graders in the district had failed Minnesota’s basic skills test. Johnson added all-day kindergarten and converted junior highs into K–8 and 6–8 schools, to give kids greater stability. She pressed to improve teacher training and made it easier to reward good performance or fire teachers who didn’t improve. Perhaps most important, she began rebuilding the schools’ public image, not only reversing the business community’s opposition to boosting the schools tax, but also raising millions of dollars for arts and music education. She even asked a member of Prince’s entourage to approach the rock star for a donation. “Prince graduated from one of our high schools,” she explained to the man, “and I really think he should understand what it means to give back to our kids.” Within a week, a $20,000 check arrived.