Boston Public

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?

By | Boston Magazine |
boston public schools superintendent carol johnson

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK. Carol Johnson, Boston’s superintendent of schools, photographed inside her downtown office. (Photo by Chris Churchill)

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.

boston public schools superintendent carol johnson

Johnson, Mayor Menino, and Reverend Gregory Groover, then chair of the school committee, in September 2011, signing a compact to accelerate achievement for all students in Boston’s public schools. (Photo courtesy of the Mayor’s Office)

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.

boston public schools superintendent carol johnson

SCHOOLWORK. Johnson visiting with students this past April at the O’Donnell Elementary School, in East Boston. (Photo by Chris O’Donnell)

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.

 

boston public schools superintendent carol johnson

SCHOOLWORK. Johnson visiting with students this past April at the O’Donnell Elementary School, in East Boston. (Photo by Chris O’Donnell)

The quality Johnson is most likely to be remembered for in Boston is the highly personal touch she’s brought to her work. On her excursions to the well-appointed offices of white-collar Boston, she unfailingly greets custodians and waitstaff. When she visits a school she makes a point of wandering around a classroom, asking students where they’re from, what they’re learning, and what their plans are for the future. If there’s a child working a bit apart from the others, she’ll invariably go over to say hello. This past January, when Governor Deval Patrick announced his education initiative at the Orchard Gardens K–8 School, in Roxbury, Johnson was supposed to be part of the scrum standing behind him for the television cameras. When Patrick began to speak, the various officials dutifully gathered around—except for Johnson. She was huddled on the edge of the crowd with two of the teachers whose kids had just performed for the governor, laughing about what had gone into preparing them for that day. That same month, after Gabriel Clarke, an eighth grader at the Curley K–8 School, in Jamaica Plain, was shot one evening while on his way to choir practice, Johnson quietly went to visit him and his mother in the hospital.

Even her adversaries admire her personal skills. “She is a kind person who cares very much about the school system,” says Richard Stutman, the union president. “She’s kid-friendly. She’s compassionate. And she’s a good human being.”

That said, both Stutman and City Councilor John Connolly, who is probably Johnson’s most prominent critic, believe she is out of her depth. In an interview, Stutman uncharacteristically refused to criticize Johnson’s management style directly, but he hasn’t always been so circumspect. “They are so tentative, the slightest flicker or breeze changes their mind,” he fumed to the Globe a couple of years ago about Johnson and her team. “It’s a terrible and ineffective way to run a school system.”

Connolly, who doesn’t see eye to eye with Stutman very often, agrees. “I think overall it’s been a pretty weak performance,” he says. “She has faults when it comes to management of the system. Over time we continue to see a failure to implement a long-term strategic plan, and the schools seem constantly mired in crisis mode and reaction mode.”

Almost since Johnson took over, she’s had a habit of making proposals that, as with the 2009 school-assignment redo, she’s had to pull back when they proved too controversial, or that weren’t as thoroughly vetted as they should have been. Her proposal to move the prestigious Boston Latin Academy is a case in point. It was part of a larger shuffle intended to create additional space at successful high schools, but it turned out that Johnson’s staff hadn’t taken into account the school’s priorities for how it scheduled classes, and so had miscalculated how much room it would need. For all its good intentions, the incident struck even admirers as tone-deaf. “The icons of the school system are the exam schools,” says Paul Grogan, the president and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “They’re one of the few things that keep middle-class families in the city and sending their kids. You can’t just make an announcement that you’re moving one.”

Yet Johnson’s willingness to change tack in public also has its defenders. “She’s not afraid to go public before she’s figured things out,” says Neil Sullivan, the Boston Private Industry Council’s executive director. “We can all have an opinion on whether that’s a good or a bad thing. But you could say that’s how you’re authentic in seeking a community response: You don’t try to figure it all out before you allow people to react.”

Vetting ideas in public is not easy. Late in 2010, Johnson floated a series of proposals to close, merge, expand, and move schools. In part, she was driven by a conviction that students in poorly performing schools would be better off if they were moved to better schools. And in part, her calculation was financial. The district had some 5,400 empty seats, costing roughly $4,000 each, and with the state licensing new charter schools it seemed unlikely they’d be filled anytime soon. The sudden influx of 1,000 new students with special-ed diagnoses in the earliest grades that caught school officials by surprise in 2012 wasn’t anywhere on the horizon.

Many parents were pleased with the changes, since low-performing schools were merged with better ones, while popular and higher-performing schools, like the Boston Arts Academy and Fenway High, got room to add more seats. But parents with kids in the schools facing closure, like the Agassiz, in Jamaica Plain, packed community meetings to protest. Parents in Mission Hill, meanwhile, objected bitterly and vocally to the well-liked Mission Hill K–8 School’s moving across town to take over the old Agassiz space. On the December night that the school committee voted to approve the reshuffling, a packed, restive audience repeatedly booed and heckled Johnson as she read her explanation aloud. “You are robbing our future by closing our school!” one student yelled. “Shame on you!” parents shouted at the school committee after its vote.

Johnson is philosophical about the brickbats that have come her way. “How can you feel under attack,” she muses, “when people come to talk about their children? They come out because they want their kids to get the best education possible. That’s admirable! It’s exactly what you want them to do.” And as bruising as vetting ideas in public can be, Johnson considers it not just part of her job, but a crucial part. “That is the work,” she says. “Ideally, you want to elevate community discussions so that people are so involved and committed that they own the outcome.”

There are still parents rankled by the closings fight. But the system as a whole is better off because of the mergers and closings, insists John McDonough, the school district’s longtime chief financial officer. “We couldn’t afford to keep on paying for 5,400 empty seats,” he says. Schools that benefited from new space, like the Boston Community Leadership Academy and New Mission High School, have seen their popularity and waiting lists grow. And it’s worth noting that the next big initiative—this year’s revamp of the district’s broken student-assignment process—involved one long public process. Johnson learns from her experiences.

 

Whatever her ups and downs, Johnson has had the steady backing of the one political figure who has counted most: Mayor Menino, with whom she talks several times a week. He publicly backed Johnson through the Rodney Peterson imbroglio and the school-closings fracas. He made the highly fraught school-assignment overhaul a joint endeavor, throwing his political weight behind the effort while Johnson’s team provided the data and technical support. Last year, when she began traveling back to Memphis regularly to care for her ill husband, Menino filled in for her at public events. After he fell ill, she returned the favor. “The mayor feels extremely close to her,” says Martha Pierce, Menino’s education adviser. “They’re each other’s biggest champion. And he trusts her in her decision-making.”

boston public schools superintendent carol johnson

SCHOOLWORK. Johnson visiting with students this past April at the O’Donnell Elementary School, in East Boston. (Photo by Chris O’Donnell)

There have been times, naturally, when Menino’s political interests have shown. School-quality advocates speculate that Menino’s initial focus on boosting neighborhood schools through the new assignment process was an attempt to outflank John Connolly on the issue. Among mayoral politics watchers, Menino’s recent announcement that the city is buying a North End building for a new school was seen as a move to blunt Connolly’s criticism that the district has no strategic facilities plan—though it is also true that parents living in and around downtown have been agitating for several years for a new school. Connolly, for his part, accuses the mayor of “pulling the rug out” from under the schools in the two-year-long negotiations over a new teachers’ contract. Connolly is especially frustrated that the contract did not include the extended-day provisions Johnson had long insisted upon. Menino “didn’t push the envelope,” Connolly says. Johnson points out that the schools did get two out of the “three big things” they wanted in negotiations. The principals now have new flexibility in hiring and a more-robust teacher-evaluation process, which gives them more power in dealing with underperforming teachers.

The simple truth is this: In the years since Johnson took over, the schools have made measurable progress. The four-year graduation rate for BPS students is now 66 percent, the highest level ever recorded by BPS. Dropouts have fallen from a high of 9.4 percent in the 2006 to 2007 school year to around 6 percent in the 2010 to 2011 school year. Boston’s average eighth-grade math score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2011 was well ahead of the big-city average and on par with the national average. MCAS scores have been going up. Arts and music are now at least a weekly event for 14,000 students. Summer-learning programs are thriving. There are still 48 Level 3 schools in Boston, but that’s down from 68 a few years ago. A series of strong principals have taken schools that were once at the bottom of the heap and propelled them forward, while others have turned schools that were doing okay into ones with long waiting lists. Enrollment next year will be the highest it’s been in eight years.

There is no question that the district has a ways to travel. “I talk about the dentist,” says Carleton Jones, BPS’s facilities chief, who led the technical-support team for the school-assignment remake. “I don’t want to have a dentist who’s ‘getting better.’ I want a dentist who’s proficient.”

Getting there requires progress on a bewildering array of fronts, and that progress has already begun. Johnson and Menino are pursuing legislation that would build on the 2010 law that gave BPS the right to create its own charter schools. This time, they hope to give school administrators throughout the system greater flexibility on hiring and firing, curriculum, and work rules. Johnson has also been a steadfast advocate not only of creating a “portfolio” of schools with the freedom to pursue educational innovation, but also of working with state-chartered schools. “The thing that Carol gets,” Paul Grogan says, “is that without the external pressure from charters, you can’t change the system.” Johnson has also taken a few small but crucial steps that show up directly in classrooms, such as adding literacy coaches and teacher training to focus on reading in the early grades, championing arts education, and pressing non-exam middle schools and K–8s to make sure eighth-grade students get to study algebra.

Some of Johnson’s longest-lasting contributions will come from several under-the-radar changes she has steered through. The farthest-reaching is “weighted student funding,” a budgeting reform designed by John McDonough and his former deputy, Seth Racine. Schools no longer get money based on their programming. Instead, their budgets depend on how many and what kinds of students they have. Schools with a greater number of English-language learners, special-ed students, and kids from poor families get more. They have an incentive, in other words, to recruit the students who need the most help, rather than shunning them. The entire system, McDonough says, is also more focused on how to attract and serve students in an era of stiff competition from charters. “We went from just the mayor and superintendent being concerned about our competitive advantage,” he says, “to 128 school leaders who now need to fight for every student in the city.”

Similarly, BPS has put great effort into making data on every child available to every school administrator and every teacher. Schools can now start delving into the numbers to see where individual students need academic help. And the district can better understand which factors—a school’s culture of teacher collaboration, more time well-used in the school day, summer school, support for kids with difficult home lives, the rigorous tracking of each child—move the needle for everyone.

As she prepares to leave Boston, Johnson has no plans to seek another school system to oversee. “There are so many things you can do other than being superintendent to help kids learn,” she says. “I’m sure there will be other ways for me to serve.”

But that probably won’t stop other cities from knocking on her door. “She is enormously popular personally,” Michael Casserly says, “and profoundly respected for her experience, her academic expertise, her thoughtfulness and sense of strategy, and her ability to work well with others.” When other cities look at where Boston’s schools are now, he adds, they like what they see. “It’s something Boston probably doesn’t know, in the midst of all the little day-to-day fights it has. But the truth is that any city in the country would love to have her.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2013/04/25/boston-public-schools-superintendent-carol-johnson/