Tag Archives: Thomas Menino

The Stage is Set…

BPS BudgetThe Parent Imperfect hit another of those dry spots over the holidays and is just now recovering. It’s not as if there is nothing to be imperfect about. The debate about school assignment in the Boston Public Schools is coming to a belated climax…belated because a variety of community voices have insisted on a deeper and more thoughtful discussion of the issue.

Mayor Menino has emerged from a period of serious health problems, which is great news. To his credit, he has plunged right back into the conversation about the schools: I only wish his time away from the everyday demands of the city had allowed him to alter his point of view, even slightly. This is one place where enlightened leadership could really improve a policy outcome.

The discussion between the BPS and the External Advisory Committee named by the Mayor has now settled on three options. One would carve up the three current assignment zones in to ten smaller zones. It would offer parents a few more citywide school options, but would greatly limit the choices available to all families. If you live near good schools, you’ll probably have a better chance of getting your children into one of those schools. If you don’t, you won’t.

Dozing TommyThe other two options are variants of a plan offered by Peng Shi and his associates at MIT. This plan would offer each family a “basket” of choices that included some schools very close to their home.and other choices further away. The choice basket would include schools of varying “quality” (according to the test-based way the State defines school quality), so that every family would have some higher quality and some lower quality choices in their basket.

The ten-zone plan is a non-starter from the perspective of providing fair access to the quality schools that exist in the system. If you color-code the city’s schools in terms of quality and take even a quick look at the map, you can see that the ten-zone plan stacks the deck in favor of certain zones. Guess which ones?

If you live two blocks from the Lyndon, you are looking at a dramatically different set of options than if you live two blocks from the Mattahunt. Even with a few additional citywide options, the ten-zone plan will increase inequalities in access to quality public education in Boston. If the ten-zone plan goes forward, geography will be destiny for even more Boston schoolchildren than it is today.

As many have said, the MIT plans (called “home-based” plans, an unfortunate choice of words that confuses more than it clarifies) seem more promising, but, as always, more than a few devils lurk among the details.

School ChoiceAs currently being discussed, the MIT plans continue to apply the one-mile walk zone in a couple of ways. If the plans are implemented this way, the families who live closer to very good schools will have more good schools in their choice basket and PRESTO, those families will find it easier to place their children in those good schools. Sound familiar? In a detailed report on the MIT proposals, Peng is very clear about this effect of applying the walk zone to his plan. That detail somehow didn’t make it into the BPS’s summary of the Peng report for the EAC. I’m sure that was just an oversight.

As Peng also says, the walk-zone preference is not necessary to his plan because the choice basket, by design, already includes a number of “close to home” schools. Add the walk zone to a choice basket already weighted toward “close to home” and you’ve got a form of “double jeopardy.” Maybe it would be better to call it the “double whammy” for children living in poorly-schooled neighborhoods.

Neither of the MIT plans is even close to perfect, but if they are implemented in a transparent way (a huge “if”) without the walk-zone preference, either of them should result in fairer (not completely fair…there will still be much work to do improving the quality if struggling schools) access to quality across all Boston neighborhoods.

Not surprisingly, one senses that the fix is in. Rather than present the ten-zone plan as one concept and the MIT “diverse choice basket” concept as the alternative, the BPS presented the EAC with two versions of the Peng plan, alongside the ten-zone plan. What would happen if, in the race to replace John Kerry in the Senate, there were two Democrats and one Republican on the ballot?

Assignment meetingThe EAC should be choosing between a ten-zone plan that works much like the current system (just with more zones), on the one hand, and the innovative MIT concept of offering each family a fixed basket of choices of varying quality and distance from home, on the other.  Alternatively, let’s put the six-zone plan with “access to quality interventions” back on the table. That option disappeared the last time the cards were shuffled. It is no prize, but it clearly more equitable than the ten-zone plan that popped up at the last minute.

On Monday and Tuesday of this coming week, public meetings will be held to give you a chance to raise your voice on this issue (Monday from 6-8 at Orchard Gardens and Tuesday from 6-7 at Suffolk University). If you care about this issue, take the time to come out and be heard. Some other time could well be too late.

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Common Sense 17 – Political Expediency 14 (OT)

Flag FootballThese days, the Parent Imperfect is pouring too many of his words into a  writing project for which they pay him. Imagine that! But occasionally something happens that even a harried PI must talk about.

On Thursday night, while I was at the Irving School, speaking to Connie’s teachers about sixth grade, the Mayor’s External Advisory Committee (EAC) announced a change in its timeline for making a decision on a new school assignment plan for the Boston Public Schools. Yippee!

An activist alerted the QUEST list at mid-afternoon that big news was coming, and the BPS made it official with an e-mail to its Boston School Choice mailing list just before 5PM. The EAC was meeting that evening so the public announcement came at the City Hall confab.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s External Advisory Committee on School Choice will continue its work through January as it creates an improved student assignment system for the city’s children and families. The Mayor’s decision supports Superintendent Carol R. Johnson’s recommendation that her technical team work with Professor Parag Pathak, director of the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative (SEII) at MIT, and experts at Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

(Oh boy…don’t you feel safer already? Both Harvard and MIT are going to be involved. I wonder if bringing in these heavy hitters means that our friend, Peng Shi, gets kicked to the curb.)

The EAC had already made at least 4 adjustments to its timeline, but this one was different. By making this change, the Mayor is acknowledging that his original insistence on a decision in time for an announcement at the January 13 “State of the City” speech just wasn’t workable. The Mayor’s health problems have probably put the speech, itself, in doubt, but the point here is that there will not be a new assignment plan in mid-January. The same message that announced the change quoted the Mayor saying:

This close to a successful outcome, I want to ensure the EAC has the time it needs to get it right.

OK….This is a victory for every family that relies on the Boston Public Schools for the education of its children. It’s also a victory for common sense over political expediency, and common sense seldom wins those confrontations. Anyone who attended any of the EAC meetings over the past two or three months knew very well that the Committee was nowhere near being able to make an informed decision on the complex issues that sit just beneath the surface of this conversation. My fear was that the ticking clock was going to force them to make a highly pressurized decision without information, but, for the moment, I can focus on other fears.

Mr. GoarWhen the BPS opened this current round of discussions with a public presentation in September of “the six assignment alternatives,” Dr. Johnson and her then Assistant Superintendent Michael Goar certainly thought that this was going to be an easier discussion. Perhaps Mr. Goar knew what was coming, though, as hours after that meeting at the Lila Fredericks Middle School he announced that he was bailing for a job at a nonprofit in Minnesota. The alternatives presented by Mr. Goar are now barely recognizable in the conversation, which is all to the credit of the EAC and the community groups that have kept hope alive.

The message that night was clear. It went something like this…”We are making great strides in improving the quality of the Boston Public Schools. Our 11 “turnaround schools” are becoming stronger by the week and we have identified 21 additional schools that are “in need of support.” We have a plan to improve those schools, as well. Trust that our commitment to quality will continue to show results as we implement an assignment plan that is more predictable, rational and efficient. Money saved by putting the buses back in their garages will support our ongoing efforts to improve quality.” (That’s not a quote from anyone, but a summary of my notes of the presentations of Dr. Johnson and Mr. Goar.)

At least some members of the the EAC weren’t buying it. The second person to comment on the presentations said that he had expected the BPS to integrate quality concerns into its proposals by coming up with models that guaranteed equality of access to the quality existing in the system. It was not enough to create a system that would get more kids in schools “closer to home” if that locked out other children from quality school seats. Many meetings and hours of discussions later, to its credit, the EAC is still trying to see that this question is addressed, along with other equally important questions about how Special Education students and English Language Learners will fare in the new system.

The announcement on Thursday night reflects the EAC’s realization that it needs more time and more information to make its decision. It also reflects the City’s realization that forcing an immediate decision, based on a political deadline, promises more costs than benefits for the Mayor. It’s also entirely possible that the City’s political leadership and that of the BPS have learned from the discussion that this issue is more complex, and more important to the community than they originally thought. The BPS deserves credit for engaging with the community on this issue, and for showing a degree of flexibility, as well.

I wasn’t at the EAC meeting on Thursday night, but I doubt that Kim Janey, Barbara Fields, Megan Wolf and the other proponents of making access to quality education a consideration in the assignment plan were dancing in the aisles of the BRA room in City Hall. If they were, then I’m sorry to have missed it!

This a reprieve that offers no guarantees of how the debate will turn out. The BPS insists that it will have a new assignment plan in place for the 2014-15 school year, and I believe then mean it. There is much work to be done to be sure that this plan offers real improvements over the current assignment plan that offers some children much better chances to achieve their right to quality education than others. The QUEST continues…

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