Talking ChangE, Chang prevails

ChangNo doubt about it, the Parent Imperfect was surprised. Few of the handicappers gave Tommy Chang much of a chance when the four finalists for Boston School superintendent were announced on February 19, but that’s just who the school committee named, in a 5-2 vote on Tuesday night. People at last night’s meeting were acting like the guy was holed up in a motel in Saugus and would be in Boston by sun up, but it seems that he will take a prudent amount of time to transition out of his role in Los Angeles. WBUR reports that he’ll be here by July.

The Mayor and the School Committee chair definitely wanted a unanimous decision, but it was not to be. Many people made public comments in favor of the candidacy of Pedro Martínez, and Committee members Miren Uriarte and Regina Robinson courageously cast their votes for the accountant turned school leader when the committee tally took place. I have to say that, while I was not a supporter of Martínez, the support he received from the community and the School Committee made me want to go back and take another look at all that the man said during his interviews.

Last night’s show had some of the feel of theater of the absurd. At 10:20AM, yesterday, I got an ominous e-mail from someone who was very much at the center of the hiring process.

Thank you for your thoughts.  I read your blog post with interest. I particularly agree with your final point.  At the end of the day, all of us who care about public education in Boston need to commit to doing all the can to support whomever is the new superintendent.

That did not sound good…at all. Then, just after noon, another message came in from an education advocate who has an uncanny way of knowing what is going on in City Hall.

Mayor chose Chang and is meeting with individual BSC members one on one.
 2-3 are not on board yet and …will make some statement of her own.

Can’t discuss now but really really shocking news here.

By the time I got to Court St., candidate Dana Bedden had dropped the bomb that he was withdrawing from consideration (he must have gotten the same noontime message I had), and boston.com was reporting that Chang was the one. So, virtually everyone in the room knew the result before the meeting started, but we all went through a 2.5 hour collective charade as if the decision was being made before our very eyes. People had to keep correcting themselves to maintain the illusion of a real process. It was truly bizarre.

No matter, Chang was the youngest of the finalists and arguably the least experienced of them, as well, when it comes to district-level leadership experience. In his public interviews, he emphasized his experience with Special Education and that seemed to catch the attention of some SPED parents in Boston. Two representatives of the local Special Education Parents Advisory Council spoke in favor of Chang at the meeting, one even introducing herself to the Committee as “Carolyn Chang,” getting the biggest laugh of the night. That said, the one SPED parent on the School Committee did not vote for Dr. Chang when the roll call came.

Chang was careful to be respectful of Boston school leadership and to acknowledge the achievements of the system, but also painted himself as a change agent, someone who embraced the idea of “creative disruption.” The message was that he is willing to challenge and even trash existing structures to achieve the change needed in the system. This nuanced commitment to risk failure in order to achieve dramatic change, coupled with at least one mention per minute of the word, “autonomy” gained him the support of many education reform advocates in the area. Most importantly, Chang became the darling of the Daddy Warbucks of education reform, The Boston Foundation.

In one school committee discussion during the interviews, a member memorably said what some others were obviously thinking. It was something like, “We need a leader who can speak the language of the people and institutions who can provide the resources we require to achieve school improvement.” Chang apparently speaks four languages, but our erstwhile School Committee member was not referring to one of those four in that statement.

School CommitteeBut this transformation talk didn’t just gain Chang the support of the deep pockets. Roxbury City Councillor, Tito Jackson, strode to the mike last night and offered surprisingly strong support for Dr. Chang. His main point was that we need transformation, not mere reform, (who would have thunk it? a City Councillor, channeling Che!) so we need a leader who will not just move the existing levers a little bit better. We need a change agent. Jackson’s spirited argument for Chang took me somewhat by surprise. I have to believe that his message might have been different had not Dr. Bedden bolted at the last minute. Bedden’s last-minute withdrawal completely changed the dynamics of the meeting.

Most importantly, some combination of things that Chang said and didn’t say gained him the support of the Mayor. In his statement expressing his pleasure with the School Committee’s choice, Marty Walsh characterized the new super as an “innovator.” I need to go on record here saying that I thought Chang presented himself very well and had prepared public framing of his candidacy that was second to none. He managed to somehow escaped the tarnish that should have come with playing a leadership role in a corrupt and financially profligate school administration in LA. He definitely talked a very good change game, at a time when Boston rightly feels that it needs deep transformation of our educational system. But when I look at the man’s record, I just don’t see the evidence of him initiating successful new ways of doing things.

But who cares about that now? The man is our next superintendent, and we will welcome him to Boston and make the very best of his leadership. Tommy Chang was not the only one who got a job last night. Any student, parent, teacher, principal, school administrator or public education advocate who is committed to equity and quality in education also got a big job last night…the job of making it happen when the wind just might not be with us.

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