Whither the District: Leaders Must Lead on School Reform

By Michelle Morrissey

In my 12th grade Civics class, my students and I just finished an in-depth study of the desegregation in the Boston Public Schools that began in 1974. The Boston "busing crisis," as it's referred to here, began when the Boston Public Schools were desegregated under federal court order, after years of resistance and outright hostility towards the claims of black parents by the democratically-elected school committee.

It's easy to get caught up in the images of horrific racism and racial violence that followed Boston's order to desegregate, but this year, as I read and discussed the events of the 1970s with my students, I found myself wondering about the history and governance of the public schools here in Boston: how had the schools changed since the days when a member of the school committee could publicly declare, in response to black parents' complaints about the quality of their children's schools, "We don't have inferior schools. We just have inferior students"? How had busing itself transformed the district, not just in the short term but up until the present day?

We know a lot more than we did in the 1970s about the importance of access to great teachers. Research shows teachers are the critical in-school factor behind student success; the recently released study by Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff goes a long way towards measuring the impact that a single outstanding teacher can have on a student's life. They found that the influence of a single great teacher can last throughout students' lifetimes and impact students' likelihood of attending college as well as their future earnings.

Recent reform initiatives have therefore focused on teacher evaluation and improving the metrics through which we understand what value teachers are bringing to their classrooms. These initiatives are important steps forward for education reform.

But missing from the conversation about education reform has been a larger discussion of district and principal accountability. For example, here in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Teachers Association released a study showing that almost 30% of teachers in their first three years of teaching had had no formal observation at all, even for a period of time as short as 20 minutes. In the Boston Public Schools, the situation is even worse: according to a 2010 study commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, only 17% of non-tenured teachers had been evaluated at all in the last year; a quarter of all schools in the system did not turn in a single evaluation of any teacher over a two year period. School administrators have many, many demands on their time, but given the importance of classroom teachers, it's simply not acceptable for school administrators not to observe their teachers.

No one would find it acceptable for teachers to give their students grades without actually assessing their progress; a teacher being rated without observation is no different. It means that administrators are not working with their individual teachers to become better, but it also means that districts are not holding principals accountable for what should be considered their greatest responsibility -- the quality of education happening in the classrooms of their schools.

If, as George Miller wrote recently in Education Week, No Child Left Behind "turned the lights on in our schools," then its reauthorization should do the same for urban districts, whose governance structures, decision-making processes and budgets tend to resemble a black box. In Massachusetts, the state has recently taken the step of placing a low performing district outside of Boston into receivership, but the very unusual nature of this action shows how infrequently even chronically underperforming districts face substantive outside accountability.

As the recent documentary on Boston's desegregation, Can We Talk?, makes clear, busing in Boston left the community with a collective and potentially unhealed trauma. Also clear is that the crisis itself took place because the district ignored issues of equity and access, refusing to fairly educate all students. Ultimately, it shows the importance of districts' governance structures in shaping the possibilities available to students in its schools. Just as teachers should be held accountable for our practice, the districts we work for must be held accountable for ensuring equality of opportunity for our children.

As we begin to think through the next steps in education reform, principals and districts should, like teachers, also be held accountable for their role in school reform -- for evaluating teachers fairly, for helping to improve the quality of instruction in their schools, and for considering how to extend access to effective teachers to all children. The reality is that without a closer look at the school and district governance, we can't move forward.

Michelle Morrissey teaches History and Special Education at the Academy of the Pacific Rim High School in Boston. A native of Boston, Michelle taught in the New York City Public Schools and served as a United Federation of Teachers chapter leader prior to returning to her hometown. She is currently a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.