Urban school leaders actually can turn to a host of strategies to improve their schools and the academic performance of their studentsas long as their efforts aren’t compromised by a host of increasingly diverse, vocal, and active special interest groups.
That was one of many observations voiced Friday by Thomas Payzant, former superintendent of the Boston Public Schools and a former assistant secretary of education under President Bill Clinton.
Speaking at an Early Bird session of NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE), Payzant, now a professor of practice at Harvard University, acknowledged what urban school leaders already know: Their decisions can be judged as much on political grounds as on educational arguments.
“You know, all too well, how many different stakeholders, how many different groups, how many points of view, how many special interests exist in your communities,” said Payzant, currently a professor of practice at Harvard University.
“When it comes to education, they are in line at the microphone, ready to tell you what they want. As elected officials . . . you have to pay attention to every special interest group that shows up . . . even if you cannot fully support what they have to offer. Special interest politics is really the key to the way we think of politics today.”
For school boards to stay on track, he added, they need a clear vision of where they’re going and how they expect to get there.
But Payzant warned board members that their vision might not align with their actions. Take a look at the school district budget, he said. Too often, there is a huge discrepancy between the priorities stated grandly in the school board’s strategic plan and the priorities quietly laid out in the district budget.
“Strategic plans are wonderful, but if strategic plans are just page after page of initiatives, without real clarity about four or five key initiatives that are significant and going to have priority, there’s going to be a little bit of something done for a lot of different initiatives, with an inability to go into depth in a few areasthose initiatives that will make a difference on teaching and learning.”
Too often, he said, some precious funds are going instead to the priorities of those special interest groups that are vocal. “They try to do everything people would like you to do.”
Payzant touched upon a wide range of topics during his remarks. Talking of some of the lessons he learned over his career, he said one of the most important is that local urban leaders cannot forget how much power they have to influence student learning. Ultimately, he said, school boards and superintendents have control of the quality of teachers in their schools and of the leadership capacity of the principals assigned to those schools.
Indeed, he said, “the most important issue that you and your colleagues will be facing in the next ten to 15 years is the human capacity of your schools.”
That not only means hiring good people, but it also means providing the coaching, mentoring, professional development, and new paths to advance in their profession.
“You need to find ways for them to progress … opportunities to give them some variation, to develop new skill sets,” Payzant said.
Urban school leaders also have power if they can stay the course. In Boston, he recalled launching a new math initiative to raise abysmal test scoresand lost of political capital when the program failed to boost student performance in the following years.
But success, he was convinced, depended on giving the program time to take rootand for teachers and students to become familiar with it. That kind of patience is hard to maintain in today’s impatient political environment.
As it turned out, student performance did start to moveand it’s been climbing every since, he said. But many were ready to call it a failure after its first year, let along after its third.
“It’s another problem we have” in educationthe need for quick results, he said. “If it doesn’t work right away, pull the plug.”