WITH HIS WORKING-CLASS DICTION and penchant for malapropisms, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino doesn't exactly sound like an education wonk. But under his guidance, the city's schools have prospered as never before. Menino's example provides a useful blueprint of what it takes for a big-city mayor to govern schools successfully.
Largely, that has meant a committed, schools-loving mayor who hires a top superintendent with a strong vision of reform -- in this case, former San Diego schools chief Tom Payzant, an expert on instruction who retired in June after 11 years in Boston. The mayor also appoints a goal-oriented school board without political ambitions, provides support when needed and then steps back, leaving it largely to the board and his superintendent to manage.
Compare that with the system proposed for Los Angeles. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa may be every bit as committed to reform as Menino, and he would essentially be able to hire a superintendent. But he would have to share power over the district with an elected school board that would operate much as it does now. And, as Menino said about Boston's elected board: "The old school board made decisions based on patronage and pork."
Menino's lobbying for state and private funds, and leveraging of city money, has brought per-pupil spending from about $6,350 a year in 1996 to more than $10,000. The schools carved out a curriculum so rigorous it makes a Californian gulp -- the Massachusetts exit exam requires all students to know two more years of high school math than California's -- and trained its teachers to carry it out.
Therein lies another difference. In Boston, teacher training, coaching and even credentialing are a major part of the new regime. Such change would be far more difficult in L.A. Teachers already have succeeded in ensuring that the bill enabling Villaraigosa's plan to move forward, which the state Senate will consider this week, will not diminish their cherished autonomy. And future changes to their contract would be up to the school board, which under Villaraigosa's plan negotiates with the teachers union.
Under mayoral control, Menino has gained some ground in union negotiations. Most important, the district won major concessions on teacher assignments so that teachers cannot pick and choose which schools they'll work at based on seniority. As a result, the district is better able to assign teachers to the schools where they are most needed.
Boston teachers hardly consider Menino an adversary. But neither is he seen as an ally, the way many in the California and L.A. teachers unions see Villaraigosa, a former colleague.
The extra money Menino has brought into the schools has allowed the district to raise teacher salaries substantially, lower class sizes and launch a huge teacher-training effort. With the Boston curriculum demanding that students starting in primary grades be able to write an essay describing how they reached a certain answer in math, even first-grade teachers have to fully comprehend math concepts. And Boston schools have for years required all students to take a full college-prep curriculum to graduate.
Some schools in Boston have the right to make many of their own budgetary decisions, but only if they have reached a certain level of achievement. Even then, they must stick with the district's firm rules on using teaching coaches and curriculum. Under the most recent version of Villaraigosa's proposal, schools would gain more autonomy no matter how poorly they perform.
Unlike the L.A. schools, Boston has enough credentialed teachers. But because even graduates of teachers colleges often aren't trained to do optimal work in an urban district, Boston has started its own credentialing program. College graduates, often people making the transition from another career, work as an assistant with one of Boston's top teachers, as well as taking coursework to earn a certificate. That's better for students and teacher trainees than L.A.'s teacher "internship" program, which places uncredentialed trainees in charge of their own classrooms.
Boston's new school leadership also made new demands on principals, who are required to spend time in the classrooms, making sure that standards are met. Those who were ineffective or balked at the new responsibilities were no longer allowed to lead schools. About 90% of the city's principals have been replaced over the last 10 years. Under Villaraigosa's bill, firing a principal would become a drawn-out process that involves consulting with teachers, parents and the community.