A Superintendent’s Commitment to Pushing Boundaries

There are no shortage of challenges for American urban districts. For starters, their students are much more likely to come from lower-income families, which presents its own set of challenges to learners. Add to that the sheer number of employees, buildings, contracts, and programs to organize and manage.  And then, of course, there are the politics that often complicate the many conflicting agendas that school systems must address. It is no wonder, then, that the turnover rate among urban superintendents is quite high.  The job is so important, so potentially rewarding, but also so draining and demanding. According the Council of Great City Schools, the average tenure of a superintendent in the nation’s largest districts is about 3.5 years. 

Boston has been fortunate over the last two decades to have bucked this trend.  For 12 productive years, Thomas Payzant headed the school system. Following his tenure, Carol Johnson brought strong leadership for another six.  Following the term of interim superintendent John McDonough, Tommy Chang has now taken the reins of the Massachusetts’ largest—and the nation’s oldest—school system.

Even though Superintendent Chang has been on the job all of two weeks, the potential of his leadership has already been projected quite impressively. For one, he comes with a background distinctive from most who take the job. Most—or at least many—superintendents have been educators in the traditional system their whole careers, rising through the ranks from teacher to principal to central office. Chang, on the other hand, started in a charter school in Los Angeles, a school that is deliberately set up to be autonomous from the central office. This perspective has seemingly conferred on him an unabashed inclination to embrace innovation and independence from central management. Thus, when Chang released his initial plans for the district earlier this week, the pieces that promote innovative practices are not window dressing, but represent a serious commitment on the part of Chang’s office to push for real change.

Given that, we are pleased to see that one of Chang’s top priorities is to increase learning time for all students in elementary and middle school. This work was begun by his predecessor, Interim Superintendent McDonough, when he and Mayor Martin Walsh struck a new contract with teachers to phase in ELT for all of Boston Public Schools (BPS) non-high schools over a three year period.  (By the way, the “interim” in McDonough’s title belies his many accomplishments working for the district over 40-plus years.) 

NCTL will be proud to support BPS through this transition to a longer, stronger day for over 50 schools and we are emboldened to be able to be involved in this work by the vision and wisdom of Superintendent Chang. We look forward to many more years of his leadership, and anticipate that he will, once again, demonstrate how Boston can stand as an urban district that deserves its reputation (and reality) of keeping good leaders in place.