For everyone who wants to make Boston's public schools better, Tuesday, September 28, was a banner day.
The Boston City Council's education committee, chaired by member-at-large John Connolly of West Roxbury, conducted a wide-ranging and highly informative public hearing to focus attention on the issues that are at stake in the teachers' union contract, now under negotiation.
It was an impressive and unprecedented performance. The council has no direct role in educational administration — that's the provenance of the school committee, a body appointed by Mayor Thomas Menino. And negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union are conducted by the school department, albeit under the mayor's extremely watchful eye. But by creatively and constructively tapping into the council's responsibility for budget oversight, Connolly's hearing produced a punch list of goals, a to-do list of needed changes that are vital to improving the performance of the city's public schools.
For almost eight consecutive hours, scores of students, parents, outside experts, grassroots leaders, business representatives, and established civic bigwigs made clear-cut and common-sense-based recommendations on how to improve what already works in the schools and how to fix what has, until now, appeared beyond repair.
It is usually a challenge to formulate a single, clear-cut, actionable goal from the diverse thoughts of a disparate group. That wasn't the case on Tuesday. The air in the city-council chamber was thick with common purpose: students must come first, and anything that does not directly effect and improve performance in the classroom is either irrelevant or obstructionist. That was a polite but still very pointed way of saying that antiquated and self-serving union work rules are public enemy number one, and hide-bound administrative practices that promote bureaucratic order but not academic achievement are public enemy number two.
In a city where the placement of a stop sign can provoke bitter disagreement, such a convergence of opinion is remarkable.
William Pfoff from Jamaica Plain's Stony Brook neighborhood was the first to testify. Pfoff graduated Boston Latin this spring and is a freshman at Harvard College. He spoke with eloquence about the impact that so many teachers had upon him and his classmates during his years in the public schools. He also expressed his deep and abiding frustration with teachers who were clearly incompetent or unmotivated, and asked why should those crippling individuals are allowed to remain. It was a threat that ran through hours of the testimony and his concerns were echoed by students from Roxbury to East Boston to Allston-Brighton.
The need to get rid of bad teachers — admittedly, only a minority — is overwhelming, and perhaps the darkest of the many black marks borne by the leadership of the teachers union.
Sam Tyler, president of the nonpartisan Boston Municipal Research Bureau, and widely recognized as the éminence grise of all who long for good government in the city, laid out a series of objectives that were subsequently reiterated by other reform groups:
* Increase flexibility in teacher hiring and assignments.
* Improve teacher-evaluation process to provide actionable feedback.
* Make student achievement a factor in those evaluations.
* Reduce the role seniority plays in reassignments and layoffs.
* Extend enrichment or development time for students and enhance mentoring and collaborative development for teachers.
* Expand the role of parents and students in school-site councils and teacher evaluations.