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?
In many respects, the intense politics around Boston’s schools have had one other key impact: They’ve nurtured a demanding, engaged audience of people outside the system who follow it intently. A host of advocacy groups lobby regularly or stand ready to litigate—as with last year’s lawsuit by Massachusetts Advocates for Children over the district’s special-education policy. But the city’s rich civic ecosystem also presents great opportunity, and Johnson has unabashedly created a broad base of community partners to expand possibilities for students: the glittering roster of notables spearheading an expansion of arts and music in the schools; the Boston Debate League, which has spurred some 600 students to devote afterschool hours and entire Saturdays to learning how to demolish opponents in argument; the CEO of Suffolk Construction, John Fish, who created the Boston Scholar Athlete Program to boost both athletics and athletes’ academic performance; and the Boston Private Industry Council’s executive director, Neil Sullivan, who partnered with BPS in a groundbreaking drive to bring high school dropouts back into the system.
“No one person can do it alone,” Johnson says. “You need the political leadership of somebody like the mayor. You need strong community and parent voices. You need business leaders willing to invest. You need community partners like the Boston Debate League. You need the teachers and principals and support staff in schools. People think that all they have to do is hire one person [as superintendent] and the work is done. And that’s so far from the truth.”
Johnson views public schools as the country’s extended hand to children who need a lift. In speeches, she likes to pull out Horace Mann’s rousing quote about education as the “great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” To function that way, Johnson says, schools must push kids from disadvantaged backgrounds so that they, like kids whose parents have the resources to get them music lessons or math tutoring, have an opportunity to excel. “The question for us,” she says, “is can we reduce the likelihood that we can predict student outcomes by poverty and ZIP codes?”
Johnson is legendary for the hours she keeps. “I say she’s not human, because I rarely see her eat, and she never stops,” says her former spokesman, Matt Wilder. She’s at meetings or in touch with her staff before the first schools open at 7:30. At night, after going home at 10 p.m. or later, she gets on the phone, sends emails, or reads one of the hundreds of reports and studies that give each flat surface in her office its own Alpine topography. In between, she runs a nonstop gauntlet of public meetings, gatherings with key staff members, trips to the mayor’s office, school visits, media interviews about the latest controversy, sit-downs with civic groups or potential donors, school concerts in far-flung corners of the city, face-offs with politicians, and community meetings. And that’s just if the day goes as it’s supposed to.
This constant motion can at times seem frenzied, and it has contributed to a perception that Johnson seems caught off-guard by problems that suddenly come to public attention. That was the case in 2009, for instance, when BPS revealed that a routine state review had found some 42 percent of its English-language learners were not getting the services they were entitled to, leading to inquiries by the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education into English-language instruction for non-native speakers.
The publicity was intensely embarrassing, but the problems actually preceded Johnson—they began in 2002, after Massachusetts voters approved dismantling bilingual education for English-language learners. Moreover, prodded by a school-committee task force and a study spearheaded by UMass Boston, Johnson had begun to address them by the time the federal departments announced their investigations. That’s because she’d quickly understood that the issue cut to the heart of what she was trying to achieve in Boston. “Forty-six percent of our students come from households where English is not the first language,” she says, “and we will never make progress if we ignore the needs of half the students in the district.” In 2010 the district reached a settlement with the Justice and Education departments that essentially endorsed its efforts—begun the year before—to offer more services to English-language learners and to overhaul how teachers are trained to work with them.
Some of the harshest criticism during Johnson’s tenure has focused on school buses running late, which became a problem in 2010 and an all-out crisis in the fall of 2011. Thousands of kids were getting to school after classes had started, which meant they were missing breakfast. At the peak of the calamity, some students weren’t getting home until after bedtime. Furious parents deluged Johnson’s and Menino’s offices with phone calls and formed ad hoc monitoring groups to stand out in front of schoolyards each morning and document what was going on. Teachers and principals faced weary, hungry kids in their classrooms. At a meeting of principals to discuss the problem, BPS’s assistant chief operating officer, Kim Rice, earnestly handed out soft balls and invited the assembled administrators to vent their frustration by throwing them at her.
While the problems were caused by what Rice called a “perfect storm” of events, the initial trigger for the mess was the retirement of a group of BPS transportation veterans, who took with them four decades of bus-routing mastery. “They had an encyclopedic knowledge of the streets and the city,” says Mike Hughes, the assistant director of transportation, who started at the same time many of them did. “They knew what was one-way, what’s two-way, what’s dead-end, how long does it take to get from here to there, can you get a full-size bus down that street or do you need to use a small bus.” Anticipating their disappearance, the district brought in a new computerized routing system to do what they’d been able to do in their heads—at the same time that budget cuts resulted in fewer buses and stops, and the consolidation and overhauling of routes. The new system created routes and schedules that, as Rice says, “according to the way it looked on maps, should have worked.” They didn’t.
While Johnson was getting pilloried in public for the problems, behind the scenes she was creating room for Rice and her team to sort things out. Rice began a series of “route clinics” at each of the four bus yards, listening to bus drivers’ complaints and soliciting suggestions. It soon became clear that the issues extended beyond the BPS transportation office. Johnson brought this up with Menino, who, one Sunday morning, called up his troubleshooter, the city’s deputy chief operating officer, Pat Harrington, and told him, “Carol needs help—can you go over?” Harrington did—and, to his surprise, was given carte blanche by Johnson to do whatever he felt was necessary. Along with Rice and her senior staff, he began showing up at the bus yards at 4 or 4:30 each school morning, both to get a handle on what was happening there and to impart a sense of urgency to the drivers and to the managers at First Student, the bus contractor, who both Harrington and Rice felt were not focused enough on improving things.
While all of this was going on, Johnson took a creative gamble. She tapped a young former Peace Corps volunteer, Carl Allen, to take over the district’s transportation office. Allen, who at the time was working as part of the BPS data team, had studied transportation economics at the Kennedy School, but he had no real management experience. Allen plunged into the intricacies of what it takes to bus a dozen kids from the same block to a dozen different schools that start and end at different times, bringing an intensely data-driven approach to his work. He rejiggered routes and schedules. He was constantly on the phone with First Student, noting when a driver was late and asking what they planned to do about it. And in the detailed daily reports he sent—and still sends—to Johnson, the on-time percentages crept up, from 76 percent to the current figure of 96 to 97 percent.