An Interview with Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang

As part of our Districts Rising publications, we sat down with new Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang to talk about his vision for the 56,650-student school system. Chang came to BPS after being an instructional superintendent in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He has prioritized equity of access for students, transparency in communications and investments in professional learning. You can find our Boston case study here, and the full set of District Rising case studies here. Below are excerpts from our conversation with Dr. Chang:

1: Let’s start with the most important question. Have you become a Boston sports fan – Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, Bruins?

“Absolutely, yes. I’ve gone to four Red Sox games, two Patriots games, and I got myself to a Lakers-Celtics game, and the Lakers won.”

2: But you were rooting for the Celtics, right?

(Pause) “The Lakers won.”

3: You never had to worry about snow days when you were in L.A. Unified. How many have you declared so far in 2015-16, and what’s that like for someone who’s never done it?

“I called my first snow day last Friday (Feb. 5). It literally was the Mayor’s entire Cabinet all working together and weighing in, but a final decision needed to be made, and so the Mayor looked at me and said, ‘Are we calling it?’ and I said yes. I became very popular among Boston students, but it was the right decision, because it absolutely was a mess in the city. I got some tweets about how much parents appreciated being notified early and that the communications seemed a lot stronger.”

4: You have been superintendent since July and produced a 100-day plan to inform your upcoming strategic plan. What do you see as the district’s strategy and goals for raising student achievement and closing achievement gaps?

“There have been nine major reports about BPS with 230 recommendations in the last six years. A theme that is very pervasive is around equity and especially around the achievement gap. BPS continues to improve on NAEP results over last 13-15 years, and everyone is rising at same rate, but the gap continues to persist. Our belief is that it has to do with opportunity gaps. If we don’t close the opportunity gaps, we’re never going to close achievement gaps. We’ve identified two areas that we think we have a chance to tackle: examining AWC (Advanced Work Classes, or accelerated classes for students in grades 4-6, to determine how to broaden access) and the number of high school kids in MassCore (the state’s recommended set of courses that lead to college and career readiness; as many as 18 high schools have fewer than 5 percent of students enrolled in MassCore).

“So one is around equity. The second is reinventing how we transform adult learning to transform student learning. If we don’t transform adult learning, I don’t think we’re going to have a chance with what happens in classrooms. The Common Core in 2016 looks so different than what college and career readiness looked like in 1985. Those who are working with our kids need to feel and understand and experience something immensely different about what learning is. You can’t communicate that and transform practice through Power Point, through traditional professional development. Adults have to experience something different.”

5: How does this strategy differ – or how is it similar – to the strategy of the past five to 10 years? In what ways do you want to stay the course, and in what ways do you want a new approach?

“We saw immense improvement during the Payzant years (Thomas W. Payzant was superintendent from 1995 to 2006). It really has to do with major investments in teachers and teaching and coaching in the system. At the younger grades, there is a very cohesive curriculum, and it’s about really making sure teachers are getting support in implementing that curriculum through coaching. There is a lot of rebuilding of structures around teacher support, teacher leadership – we want to bring that back. It can’t just be about evaluation, the hiring and firing. It also has to be about the support that’s going on.”

6: Up to one-third of Boston schools have some degree of autonomy over such matters as budget, staffing or curriculum. They range from state-approved charter schools to turnaround schools. But there’s an equity issue there, too, since two-thirds of schools don’t enjoy the same privileges. What’s your view on autonomy as a lever for school improvement?

“Autonomy is meant to spark innovation, and it’s meant to help drive creativity. Yet it is important to put some guardrails around it. I don’t want to stymie innovation. Especially in the most challenging of dilemmas, there is power in dispersing power to schools to be innovative. When it comes to other things like graduation requirements, there are absolute guardrails that are needed. For example, there should be a baseline expectation of what it means to graduate from BPS. There shouldn’t be complete discretion on what constitutes the value of a diploma from BPS.”

“So the question is, autonomy around what? It’s a matter of what are you loose on and what are you tight on. The system hasn’t been good about trying to balance that, and we’re trying to find that balance.

“Schools can choose autonomy to escape from the system, not to have autonomy to get certain results. We have a lot of trust-building to prove that we can be the capacity builder and add value to their work because then they’re not trying to get away from the central office; they’re trying to use the central office as a partner. We’re still working on that balance.”

7: Your strategy to implement Common Core centers on principal leadership and developing school-based Instructional Leadership Teams’ capacity on four “instructional foci”: evidence-based writing and reasoning; academic discourse and language; cognitively-demanding tasks; and universal design to reach all students. What does that look like, and how do you engage the community in that work?

“What we’ve done is created toolkits that align with each of instructional foci, and they include tasks (for students), but they’re also about adult curriculum. The toolkits put things into the heart of collaborative learning. So how do you come to an instructional focus in a data-driven way with your ILT? This is work that needs to be owned at the school, and our investment is helping to build school quality.

“Right now, we’re heavily investing in principals and ILTs. The next step has to be investing in teacher leadership. We should have teachers who are highly trained in how to facilitate adult learning and participating in ILT conversations, and then leading those conversations. That means deliberate coaching of teachers. The next step is to have parents who are sitting on the ILT. We need to heavily invest in parents to become deep facilitators in parent learning and helping parents continue learning. It can’t just be engaging parents so we can pour information into them. It’s about empowering parents to think about the instructional core like teachers and principals should.”

8: When we interviewed Boston Teachers Union Richard Stutman for our Districts Rising brief, he seemed cautiously optimistic about an improved relationship with the district. How would you characterize your relationship with BTU?

“I would say we over-communicate, and we are building a trusting relationship. We meet regularly, and we’re putting systems in place to make sure that all levels of the system are communicating, not just the superintendent and the president of the union. There is a great opportunity this year because we’re beginning the negotiation process with the hope that we create a contract that works for the teachers and the kids of Boston.”

9: Let’s look ahead. What do you think teaching and learning will look like five years from now in BPS?

“We’re in middle of a master planning process of all BPS facilities, a full assessment of all BPS facilities, with all the data, and we are going to ‘re-master plan’ the BPS. We have 20 different grade configurations. We have to figure out better coherence. It’s difficult for parents to navigate.

“We have to invest in facilities with a vision for what future learning is. What does really strong project-based learning look like, group instruction, demanding tasks – how do we rethink time and space? Learning shouldn’t be forced into artificial structures, especially at the high school level. So we’re doing a lot of things around that. As we build new buildings, we’re building them with a new design and not just, ‘This floor will be the science lab.’”

10: What’s the one thing that has surprised you the most about your job as BPS superintendent?

“For a city with such immense wealth, there are such deep pockets of immense poverty. For a city that has so much privilege and institutional presence, and such a legacy of excellence, there’s deep, deep structural inequities. But I do believe that if there’s a proof point that can be made in this country, it’s Boston. It’s 57,000 students. It’s the right size, and there are resources. This is the birthplace of public education.”

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