EducationKatie Kinne

How one urban high school climbed from worst to first — and taught Boston some key lessons about reform

EducationKatie Kinne
How one urban high school climbed from worst to first — and taught Boston some key lessons about reform

BOSTON — School improvement takes time. That was the message from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s speech last month when he visited the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

Four years ago, Jeremiah Burke was designated one of the worst schools in the state. It jettisoned its “underperforming” label three years later, the first high school in Massachusetts to do so.

This fall, the school won the Thomas W. Payzant School on the Move prize. The prize is awarded annually to recognize Boston’s most-improved school. The lessons that the Boston education community has learned in ten years of giving out this $100,000 award underscore Secy. Duncan’s sentiments about time. School improvement is a marathon, not a sprint.

Schools – particularly public schools – are dynamic institutions existing in an ever-changing ecosystem. How do schools navigate this landscape while forging ahead with their mission to deliver a high-quality education for every student?

According to new research about past School on the Move winners, the factor at the very core of improvement is instruction. More than any other school-improvement practice, supporting a school-wide focus on complex issues of student learning is key to driving improved school performance.

The emphasis here is on “increasingly complex.” In schools that continue to improve, teachers and staff are never satisfied with results. They continue to peel back the onion of rigorous academic instruction, pushing themselves and each other to accelerate student learning.

That is why the Boston Public Schools reorganized the central office structure to staff eight Principal Leaders who are tasked with supporting each of the district’s 125 principals and headmasters in their key role as instructional leaders in their buildings. This change is crucial to the district’s focus on instruction.

We now also know that the critical foundation for sustained improvement is internalizing a culture of high expectations – for both adults and students. This includes building an environment of trust and embracing a culture of continuous learning and productive feedback among staff. The importance of shared ownership and leadership, and deep teacher engagement, remains a consistent theme across 10 years of the Prize research.

It is this foundation that prompted the Boston Public Schools to position first the value statement that every student can and must achieve at high levels. This belief must be the fundamental value of every adult working in and around our schools for success to take hold across the system.

The research also points to the impediments of sustaining progress. We see that changes in leadership are particularly vulnerable times for school communities. While this is not a big surprise, what we learned is that how this process occurs, whether teachers are involved, and the extent to which the existing school culture is factored into the selection of a new leader, impacted whether schools were able to sustain progress or struggled through transitions.

Secondly, the pace and volume of change can overwhelm a school’s improvement trajectory. Even resilient school communities struggle when faced with multiple changes over a short period of time. Our research found this was especially true if those changes are externally initiated and operationally focused, competing with the school’s own instructional priorities for students.

These are important lessons for the Boston Public Schools’ central office to consider as the district plans for the inevitable changes that occur in any large school system, from principal transitions to enrollment and program changes, as well as the long-term facilities master planning work currently underway in Boston.

With new leadership in the first 100 days at the Boston Public Schools, now is a perfect time to glean best practices from the experience of these rapidly improving schools over the last decade.

This knowledge can and should be incorporated into the strategic planning underway at BPS and for the entire ecosystem of urban schools in Boston. We believe there are lessons, as well, for many large districts navigating school improvement and system adjustments in an ever-changing landscape.

Dr. Tommy Chang became superintendent of Boston Public Schools on July 1. His 100-day plan is designed to address the city’s immediate and future educational priorities.

Laura Perille is president and CEO of EdVestors, a Boston-based school improvement organization.