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?
As test scores within the city began to improve, Johnson’s national stature grew. In 2001 Nashville made a serious play to woo her south. She wound up staying in Minneapolis, returning a raise that the city’s school board had offered in its effort to keep her. But when Memphis came calling two years later, she accepted. Not only would she be close to family, but the district was more than twice the size of Minneapolis’s, unarguably a step up in the specialized world of big-city school superintendents.
It was also ingrown and filled with failing schools. Johnson took dramatic steps to change that. She replaced principals in the worst-performing schools, forcing the teachers there to reapply for their jobs, and then brought in a slew of new principals elsewhere. “We need principals who know what high-quality instruction looks like,” she explained, “and how to work with teams of teachers to achieve it.” She gave bonuses to teachers who improved test scores, grades, and attendance—their students’ and their own. And she took on the city’s powerful religious establishment in a fight to end paddling in the schools. In a religion-drenched city, with churches as common as convenience stores, she won by a single vote on the nine-member school board.
It was Johnson’s staunch willingness to roil the waters on behalf of improving schools that in 2007 caught the eye of Mayor Menino and the committee searching for a replacement for Thomas Payzant, who’d stepped down the year before. Payzant had worked closely and effectively with Boston’s power structure, but he had been criticized for not connecting with parents, neighborhoods, and community groups. Johnson, on the other hand, had proven she could appeal to a broad cross section of people in the communities she’d worked in, from corporate CEOs to community leaders to parents and teachers. “She values relationships first,” says Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota’s education commissioner, who worked for Johnson in Minneapolis and Memphis. “She has a way of gaining people’s trust.”
In both cities, Johnson had paid special attention to engaging kids of color who weren’t doing well. She emphasized teacher training, and used music and the arts to try to overcome the stubborn “achievement gap” that separates black and Latino kids, especially boys, from their white and Asian peers. The approach resonated with the search committee here in Boston, with its overwhelmingly minority school population. “It was part of the reason she was so attractive,” a former member of the committee says. “She’d clearly thought about it in the cities where she worked.”
Johnson turned down several requests to apply for the job, but eventually came to see Boston as a city with the resources and, more important, the civic infrastructure to make a difference. In August 2007, she took over the city’s schools.
The top brass at BPS work downtown, on the seventh floor of a city-owned building on Court Street, an alley’s walk away from City Hall. (They’re slated to move next year to Dudley Square, in Roxbury.) District employees occupy six floors in all, a warren of offices and blue-green cubicles with fans spinning overhead and faintly salmon-colored paint peeling off the beams and ductwork. From there, some 270 people oversee an $857 million organization with 11,000 employees districtwide.
It is a sprawling operation, responsible for tasks that go far beyond teaching. Each day, BPS must transport 30,000 kids to and from school, and serve about 70,000 breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. Its employees train teachers to work with English-language learners and to meet the needs of special-ed students. They manage the curriculum, run the school-assignment algorithm, and triage requests from the schools: a reading specialist here, a special-ed instructor there. They field daily, if not hourly, calls from principals asking for everything from new furniture to curriculum advice. They run the district’s increasingly complex efforts to use student and school data to improve performance, analyze the constant shifts in student population, and design better methods for evaluating teachers. They scramble to find volunteers who can bring arts and music programming into the schools, and strategize new ways of involving parents in BPS’s work. They calculate how to respond to the ebb and flow of federal, state, and municipal dollars that keep the system and its myriad programs alive.
“I can’t think of another institution that has as many moving parts as public education in the big cities,” says Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an umbrella organization for large urban school districts. “It’s a volatile stew.”
Especially in a city like Boston, where the student population in public schools is 42 percent Hispanic, 35 percent black, 13 percent white, and 8 percent Asian, and almost half the students speak a language other than English at home. Many students live in poverty, and 78 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, a rough indicator of low family income. Some 11,000 of the district’s 57,000 students (58,271 next year) have been placed in one of its varied special-ed streams.
The challenges of Johnson’s job, however, are not limited to overseeing schools that teach a diverse and often challenging student body. She and her staff also devote considerable energy to satisfying the demands of the school committee and of Mayor Menino, who has made the school system key to his policy agenda. They need to work with the city council, whose members control the budget and are often the first call for unhappy parents. They also have to work with the city’s delegation in the state legislature, to whom both Menino and Johnson have turned in recent years as they’ve tried to sidestep the teachers union and gain greater flexibility for school administrators. There’s the union itself, along with its hard-nosed president, Richard Stutman, who has negotiated unsparingly over such issues as extended learning time and teacher evaluation. And, of course, there is a vocal community of parents, ready to pack school committee meetings, often skeptical about BPS’s intentions, and many of them with their own complex memories of the school system: They were the kids on the buses and the kids whose parents yanked them from the buses during the desegregation crisis of the 1970s.
Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.’s ruling that Boston’s neighborhood-centered schools were intentionally segregated, and his order that the school committee use busing to desegregate them. Though the vitriol of those days and the flight of white families who couldn’t afford to send their kids to private or parochial schools are now just memories, the aftereffects are not: a charged tug of war between those who want a return to neighborhood schools and those who fear that this would just reinstitutionalize the inequities that busing never really remedied. That’s why the debate over this year’s new school-assignment plan—arrived at by a diverse task force appointed by Menino—was so fraught. It’s also why the final proposal, a complex algorithm developed by the MIT doctoral student Peng Shi, drew such strong support from Johnson and her team. For the first time in Boston, students will be assigned to school based on both geography and quality.