Boston students deserve more learning, less busing

This fall, after 27 months of bitter negotiations, the Boston Teachers Union accepted a contract providing new forms of teacher evaluation and remediation for under-performing teachers. At the same time, they turned thumbs down on extending the school day by 45 minutes.  That’s a pity because, if there’s one things students need, it’s more time in the classroom.  Boston teachers are among the highest paid in the Commonwealth and put in the least number of hours.   That makes their recalcitrance on this issue all the more dispiriting.

There are many exciting things going on in the Boston schools.  Those accomplishments were evident in the annual Principal for a Day program run by the Boston Plan for Excellence and sponsored by Bank of America.  Last week, I visited the Edison K-8 school in Brighton, headed by outstanding principal Mary Driscoll.  Under her leadership, her creativity, utilizing multiple partnerships with groups like City Connects and Playworks, and taking advantage of the size of the school (838 students and a large physical plant), the school boasts a well-rounded program, with solid arts, science and physical education along with the usual academic subjects.

Teachers won’t take the same amount of pay for teaching longer hours.  They made that clear, and I understand that. But there is a way to get more learning time.  And that’s to take the time and resources spent to change the school assignment process.  Instead of busing students all around town, convert savings of $70 million or $80 million to extra classroom time.  Busing was a 1970’s court-ordered remedy for de facto segregation in the city’s schools. But now neighborhood housing patterns have largely changed, and only 13 percent of the school population is white.  So children of color spend about one and a half hours a day being transported from their own neighborhoods to schools that are also largely a mix of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. So why not make sure that all schools in every neighborhood offer a quality education? 

It is true that, right now, not every neighborhood has a quality school.  The worst will have to be closed. Superintendent Carol Johnson pledges to do that, and to work with under-performing schools, getting the parents engaged, to improve them.  Money saved from the irrational busing should follow the schools with greatest need to add time to the learning day.

My elementary school, the Alexander Hamilton, has been combined with the Edison, now K-8. Unlike when I was a Boston student (in the Pleistocene era), the teachers are young (average age at Edison in the early ’30’s), dynamic, creative, team workers and totally dedicated.  They are most impressive.

If there’s anything the Principal for a Day program demonstrates, it’s that it is possible to improve quality. There’s plenty of talent in the system.  Exciting learning goes on, especially thanks to the more than 200 corporate and non-profit partnerships who are investing time and talen to making the BPS top quality. 

In two months, the External Advisory Committee studying the students assignment process, will make recommendations for new approaches to school selection.  This isn’t just about the yellow buses.They have an enormous opportunity to affect the quality of education for all.  Let’s hope they do it.

I welcome your comments below.

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