Johnson links evaluations to assignment reform

BPS deputy supt. Michael Goar says more rigorous principal and admin. evaluations cannot be implemented until BTU accepts similar terms in negotiations with the city. Photo by Pat Tarantino

Boston Public School officials this week called for district-wide improvements in order to ensure a re-designed school assignment plan is fit for public approval by its December 2012 deadline.

Superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson said improving teacher evaluations is a crucial step towards improving under-performing schools and easing the planning process which will determine what schools incoming students may attend in the coming academic year.

Currently, the BPS district is divided into three geographic zones and costs the city $80 million in transportation costs, which BPS officials project will rise to $100 million in the 2013-14 school year. Mayor Tom Menino has pledged to “radically” change the assignment plan by next year. Last week he appointed a 23-member advisory board to supervise the planning process, which is scheduled to begin with public meetings next month.

“The issue of school choice is intrinsically tied to the perceived quality of our schools,” Dr. Johnson said, noting that the current process “still lacks transparency and predictability.”

According to BPS 2011-12 kindergarten enrollment data, parent demand in the East Zone (which includes Dorchester and Mattapan) varies widely amongst schools, with three of the zone’s 34 kindergarten 2 programs – the Murphy K-8, Young Achievers K-8, and Roosevelt K-8 - accounting for almost a quarter of all first through third-priority enrollment requests made by parents, while the three least popular programs – the Perkins, Adams, and Taylor elementary schools - were requested by three percent of all parents in the zone.

BPS deputy chief academic officer Linda Chen said improvements to the current school assignment formula implemented in 2004 have helped to improve the chances a family will get its first choice school if they live within walking distance or already have a student attending the school. But Chen said improving educational experiences by providing more uniformed curriculum throughout the district would provide more concrete results.

Chen added that improved teacher evaluations were central to ensuring consistency in classrooms and said the current system of announced classroom observations conducted by principals and headmasters only gives a partial view of how a class is conducted. A new evaluation process proposed by the school department calls for more frequent visits, reviews of student performance and more input from parents—  innovations that Johnson says have already made a difference in the city’s designated “turn-around” schools.

Calling the current evaluation process “cumbersome,” Dr. Johnson said the new evaluation framework was promising, but could not be implemented across the district until the Boston Teachers Union agrees to the terms of the process as part of their ongoing contract negotiations with BPS. The BTU has been working without a contract since Aug. 31, 2010 and is currently engaged in difficult negotations with city officials. (Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the most recent BTU contract ended in 2009. That error has been fixed here.)

At last Wednesday night’s Boston School Committee hearing, member John Barros suggested that an effort be made to reassure parents that the school assignment planning process was designed with bottom-up input in mind in order to ensure people with strong suggestions are not turned away from the process before it begins.

“We’ve said that we want to hear from families and communities, but still people are saying ‘[BPS] has a plan, when are you going to show it to us?’,” Barros said. “How are we going to convince folks that we have no plan?”

School assignment committee member Bill Walczak said that while he plans on reviewing why an assignment plan proposed in 2004 failed to gain traction with the public and potentially build off those findings, he said listening to current concerns will be the committee’s primary focus.

“The purpose of the committee is to listen to what would make school system better for people in our communities,” Walczak said. “We’re going to listen to residents on what they find good and frustrating and come up with a plan that allows for a more localized school system.”

Boston University dean of education and assignment committee chair Hardin Coleman said recent moves within the school system to improve cultural training for teachers was a promising step towards making the education process more equitable for the district’s diverse student body and said he hopes the planning process proves Boston has moved past the racial divides that have made public schools a tinderbox since the era of mayor Kevin White.

“The thing that we want and the part of the mayor’s messege that I think is very important in guiding my thinking in this process is that Boston is a different city than it was in the 1960’s,” Hardin said. “We have to make an absolute commitment to Boston kids that they can join the conversations of the 21st century. That’s what this is really about.”