Boston teachers weigh in on what Mayor Walsh should prioritize in Boston schools
By Rhiannon Varmette and Sean McAdam
We'd like to welcome Mayor Marty Walsh to office and wish him the best of luck in a tremendously challenging role. This summer, the Teach Plus Policy Fellows - a diverse group of teachers with students from every neighborhood of Boston - met with Representative Walsh and six other mayoral candidates. Three major themes emerged from these discussions.
1. Great schools need great teachers. To attract and retain effective educators, Boston schools should streamline the hiring process, expand teacher leadership opportunities, and tie evaluation to professional learning.
Great teachers want to have a say in the decisions that affect our classrooms. Far too often we do not have that chance, and that drives great teachers from the profession. By expanding on Boston Public Schools' already-existing Teacher Leader and content facilitator positions and creating flexible roles and career ladders for teachers, more of those teachers would likely stay in the classroom.
The new evaluation system holds tremendous promise, especially when it is used to promote professional learning. Professional development should more often be teacher-led and teacher-chosen to meet individual needs - and it should be tied to teachers' evaluation goals. The Boston Teachers Union and BPS' new Professional Learning Advisory Board provides a good model for union-district collaboration on this important goal. In addition, we need feedback from qualified evaluators who are knowledgeable about the content and grade-level being taught.
Highly effective teachers are the single most important factor in increasing student achievement. We believe that the recent decision by Interim Superintendent John McDonough to extend hiring autonomies to all schools will help to get the most highly-qualified and effective teachers where they are most needed, reducing the number of teachers lost to the waiting game of previous hiring practices.
2. Great schools need transformative leaders. Boston should improve hiring and support for principals and seek a balance between accountability and autonomy to allow school leaders to effectively manage their buildings.
Some of us have left schools because of poor leadership, and some have come and stayed because of outstanding leaders. Leaders with vision are critical to the success of any school. Boston should continue its efforts to expand the pipeline of outstanding leaders by improving recruitment and training, especially through residency-style programs like the Lynch Fellowship.
Strong leaders will be drawn to schools where they are granted instructional autonomy and are able to respond to the needs of the students in their school. Balancing that autonomy must be clear accountability - all school leaders should be subject to rigorous evaluations. We are heartened that soon, principal evaluations will include both student achievement and staff feedback. Increased accountability will decrease the likelihood of student achievement backslides and high staff turnover.
3. Opportunity must be equitable. Equity for all students and schools will create a truly great school system.
It is critical that every student - especially our highest-needs students (English language learners and students with disabilities) - be adequately supported. The district needs to go beyond checking for compliance and conduct a thorough analysis of the current services being provided to these students. We need a plan assuring that thoughtful, research-based practices are in place and that we move toward more inclusive settings while still offering a range of services.
Schools such as Orchard Gardens K-8 and the Trotter Elementary School have received incredible resources (ranging from financial resources to hiring autonomy and community partners), and consequently have moved from Level 4 Turnaround status (chronically low-performing schools) to Level 1 status (meeting proficiency and growth goals on state testing). Under the current system, however, those resources primarily go to a school once it has dropped to Level 4 status, with few extra supports going to struggling Level 3 schools to prevent them from failing. In addition, Turnaround schools lose their funding after three years, forcing them to find their own funding or drop many of the structures and programs that helped them succeed. We need to fund all Boston schools in a fair and sustainable manner in order to provide top-quality education to children in all Boston neighborhoods.
To make Boston the highest-performing urban district in the country, all parties need to be at the table - the mayor, the superintendent, the School Committee, families, and a team of top-notch teachers with first-hand knowledge of what Boston students need and how our schools run each day. We propose that Mayor Walsh establish a Teachers Cabinet to provide feedback on decisions that affect our schools.
We know that Mayor Walsh cares deeply about education, and has the experience and dedication to make a difference for our schools. We hope he focuses on retaining and hiring talented educators. We hope that he fights for all Boston students and all Boston schools to be fairly and sustainably supported. And we hope that he seeks the teacher input necessary to make these plans a success.