A Quiet Revolution


High quality teachers who are recruited, effectively supported, and retained make great schools
High quality teachers who are recruited, effectively supported, and retained make great schools

If you’re not paying close attention you might be missing it.  Amid mayoral elections, the search for a new superintendent, a new wave of budget cuts, and state takeovers of schools, the Boston Interim Superintendent, John McDonough, and his team are quietly leading a revolution, one that is transforming the way business is done in this 57,000 student public school district.  Through a series of policy changes and reorganization steps, BPS has arguably implemented more reform in six months than the past three superintendents have in over a decade.   

Specifically, these actions have altered the way teachers are hired and supported, and how responsive the central administration is to individual school staffing and training needs.  What are these changes?  They include the following:

Open hiring

Gone is the long-practiced system in which all posted teaching positions were first offered to teachers in the excess pool – the pool of tenured teachers released by their former schools.  This often meant that new teachers, regardless of their qualifications, could not be hired until these positions went unfilled – a process that usually concluded in June or over the summer months.  Over and over again talented new teachers were either passed over or scooped up by other districts.  However, this year BPS will implement open hiring.  Schools who demonstrate a commitment to improving teaching practice through evaluation may hire the best candidate for any open position beginning in March.

Full-service teacher support

In the past, teacher hiring/human resources, teacher evaluation, new teacher mentoring and support, and teacher professional development were all viewed as separate functions and overseen by separate departments.  This fall, BPS consolidated all of these functions under a new Office of Human Capital.  Once fully operational, this office will align all of these areas, allowing for targeted teacher recruiting, hiring, evaluation, promotion and support.   Now a school principal can go to one office to request and receive comprehensive support for teachers at all stages of their career —one office that holds all the information in order to best support those teachers.  This office will also train principals on effective observation and evaluation of teacher practice, in order to best identify support needs and provide feedback for professional growth.

Competency-based Professional Development

Like many school districts, BPS invests a significant amount of dollars each year in teacher professional development.  An ongoing challenge for BPS and these districts is assessing the return on this investment.  What knowledge and skills do teachers actually acquire?  How does this training improve classroom instruction and benefit children?  Under the leadership of the new Office of Human Capital, BPS is moving towards competency-based professional development approaches, in which teachers receive training in content and instructional knowledge and skills related to their grade and subject areas, and demonstrate mastery of this knowledge skill through submission of classroom and student-based evidence (e.g. completed formative assessments, implemented instructional plans, progress in student work, etc.).

While early in the roll out of these new policies, organizational changes and strategies, these developments just may end up moving the reform needle – and ultimately student success –in Boston further than we’ve seen in a long time.  For it is great teachers – high quality teachers who are recruited, effectively supported, and retained – that make great schools.  The sense of urgency among BPS leadership to increase teacher quality– even as we wait for a new superintendent – is refreshing.

As Interim Superintendent McDonough explains (Boston Globe, 2/5/14):

It is not about us or me or a future superintendent; It’s about the kids who come into our schools every single day. They can’t wait for a new superintendent; they can’t wait for me or for us to do something on a time frame that is convenient for adults.

Based on what has happened in just 6 months, he and his team are true to their words.

Jake MurrayJake Murray is the Senior Director at Aspire Institute. Prior to joining Aspire, he served for four years as a child and youth planner for the City of Cambridge, overseeing strategic planning, quality improvement, and program development for early education, out-of-school-time, and youth development services.


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  1. This is such a tremendous thing that Mr. McDonough is doing. Even though I know him personally, he has always been a person who has always strived for better because he know’s that this can and will be done as long as he is Interim Superindent. Mr. McDonough, does not believe in letting things just go awray, he get’s things done until it is finished. I for one, believe in him and trust me he will get this assignment done and finished with the highest quality of education for everyone in the BPS System. I think it is about time and John, is the person who will get it done. Thank you, John.

  2. I commend Mr. McDonough. It’s about time that a Superintendent, (the term interim, is of no regard, especially when it comes to this incredible man who, when even being the CFO, has always put the student 1st) allows our children to be taught by the best teachers in the nation! I am a BPS parent. I always keep myself informed to ALL the happenings within the district educating my children. That being said, it’s been far too long that teachers that have been “released” are shuffled around amongst different schools! “Released” is putting it extremely mild. More times than not, these are teachers that have not been successful in teaching students. They are yes, “tenured” teachers, but this most certainly does not make them good teachers. The teacher’s union had nearly made it impossible for principals to effectively remove these teachers who are completely indifferent to the change needed to effectively prepare our children this ever changing world that each child needs to succeed in. When a school, would finally be able to essentially “get rid of” a low or non performing teacher, they would go to this “excess pool” & any school that had an opening, would be forced to hire this teacher just as long as they had the required certification for the position. This “so-called teacher” could have received the proper certification 20 years ago…say for the point of my comment, a 2nd grade teacher. But, and keep reading, this is a HUGE BUT, this teacher has been high school for the past 18 years. A principal would be forced to take on this teacher (and all of their baggage) to teach our precious, open-minded, knowledge thriving 7 year olds! It would then take that poor principal nearly 2 hard years to be able to (according to union rules) fire this teacher. In the mean time, this “teacher” could very well excess themself in the meantime & start all over in another school. In front of another unknowing class of student learners. And, in the web of another school’s, district’s, parent’s & principal’s the entire union process again! All parents, community stakeholders & politicians should give John McDonough a standing ovation.

    • Paula, you are misinformed and misinforming. A principal can get rid of an underperforming teacher in 30 days if they are willing to do the paperwork! As a Boston Public School Teacher, I was horrified, and insulted, that you referred to tenured BPS Teachers in the excess pool as being “released” and “shuffled around amongst different schools.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. You do not have all the information. You are unaware that many great teachers end up in the excess pool, because their school closed, their program was changed to reflect some BPS demographic, or BPS Office of Strategic Planning was targeting the school for closure, turnaround or “innovation,” and did so by moving in a program with a population of students known to fail MCAS! For years the district has set up schools for failure, it is how they supplemented the schools systems budget. A failing school qualifies for more State, Federal and foundation dollars!

      In BPS “autonomous schools,” a principal can remove or “excess” any staff member they choose because “they are not the right fit.” The principals at some BPS turnaround schools excessed every teacher in the building! Were all these teachers “bad?” Were they all the wrong fit? These administrators have excessed veteran teachers, not because they are incompetent teachers, but because they feel threatened by the experience and historical knowledge that veteran teachers bring to the table. You only have to look at the age data of these “leaders,” many who have limited if any experience in the classroom, and excessed teachers to recognize what the problem is. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) just released the 2013 Status of the Massachusetts Educator Workforce Report, it stated the lowest performing schools in Massachusetts have the largest percentage of new teacher’s, high-poverty schools employ a higher percentage of new teachers. This is what Mr. McDonough is setting our BPS schools up for!

      “A Quiet Revolution,” I don’t think so! Dismantling of the teacher hiring system is nothing to be proud of. That $1,250. stipend attached to a position to give administrators “autonomy” was negotiated in good faith with the Boston Teachers Union. It was supposed to be used to attract teachers in hard to staff subjects in our district. I know John, and I am very disappointed that he is choosing to go this route and “exploiting” is a good word to describe it. That is $1,250,000 million dollars is money that could have been better spent on workbooks, supplies, Xerox paper and field trips.

      Over the course of my career, I have spent thousands of dollars on supplies that the school department never had the money to provide. But it gives me pause, and makes me angry to think that $1,250. is given to a new teacher down the hall. If the district has the money for that, they ought to have the money for pencils, toilet paper, hand sanitizer and the multitude of supplies that Boston teachers purchase out of pocket every year. The district shouldn’t expect me to take out my credit card or to do without!

  3. isn’t it disingenuous to champion a program that is supported by your organization without disclosing your involvement? the aspire institute supports bps in the delivery of the “competency-based professional development.”

    jshore – i appreciate your thoughtful response to this article.