High School Redesign in Boston, Massachusetts

High School Redesign in Boston, Massachusetts
High School Redesign in Boston, Massachusetts


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), working with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), facilitated a series of field trips around the country to help state policy leaders learn more about high school redesign. This project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supported The Honor States Program, an initiative of the National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices, by providing hands-on professional development activities to state teams comprised of governors’ staffs, members of state education boards and commissions, state legislators, and senior state officials working in K-16 education.

The second field trip in the series was to Boston, Massachusetts to visit redesigned high schools and engage in policy discussions with state and district leadership. Field trip participants came from the states of Arkansas, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Virginia.


The purpose of this trip was to expose state policy leaders to policies and practices in Boston that support high school redesign, provide time to learn about the context of the reform in Massachusetts, encourage peer-to-peer learning among participants, and help participants build a network of information, resources, and contacts. Specifically, the trip was designed to enable participants to learn about the following:

  • Boston’s efforts to increase student achievement, reduce dropout rates, and better prepare all students for postsecondary education and careers through their High School Renewal initiative;
  • Massachusetts’s state-level policies and efforts to support high school reform; and
  • Impacts that state and district policies have on schools and classrooms.

The trip enabled participants to see a range of secondary learning options for students, including small schools, autonomous “pilot” schools, and an alternative charter school. It also provided a forum to meet with state and district reform leaders, including David Driscoll, Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, and Thomas Payzant, Superintendent of BPS. Meetings with policy leaders provided time to delve deeper into the strategies and policies used to support high school redesign in Boston.


BPS has gained a national reputation for its ability to make continuous improvements and to sustain a focused reform effort over time. There are several reasons for this reputation. First, the city has a long history of reform-minded leadership and the superintendent, Thomas Payzant, has been in BPS since 1995, allowing the city to implement and sustain a focused reform agenda. Second, in 2001, the city became a part of the Schools for a New Society Initiative (SNS), a seven-city initiative, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to improve high school education district wide. As a participant in the SNS initiative, Boston developed a long-term reform plan, committed matching funds, and created a team of school and community stakeholders to design and implement the strategic plan. Finally, Massachusetts has committed to raising the value of a high school diploma across the state.

BPS has committed to creating a K-12 system of excellent schools that ensures that all young people have access to high-quality educational options that prepare them well for future success. Their approach has been to create small learning environments that promote student engagement, positive relationships among adults and students, and a love of learning. Using this approach, BPS has created a network of small high schools, which includes 19 pilot schools (with plans to expand to 25 pilot schools by 2007); two Horace Mann charter schools; new, independent small schools; and schools with small learning communities. Boston also continues to offer exam schools, which require students to attain a minimum test score for admission.

Pilot Schools: The Boston Pilot Schools were opened in 1995 as result of a unique partnership among the Boston Mayor, School Committee, Superintendent, and Boston Teachers Union (BTU) to promote increased choice options within the school district. They were created largely in response to the 1994 state legislation creating state charter schools and the subsequent and potential loss of Boston students to area charter schools. The Pilot Schools were explicitly created to be models of educational innovation and to serve as research and development sites for effective urban public schools.

They are unique in the nation in that they have autonomy over budget, staffing, governance, curriculum and assessment, and the school calendar to provide increased flexibility to organize schools and staffing to best meet students’ needs, while operating within the economy of scale of a large urban public school district.

To become a pilot school, school headmasters (principals) must submit applications to BPS with evidence that at least two-thirds of the teaching staff support the change. Teachers in pilot schools are included in the BTU bargaining unit, but each school can approve changes to its labor contracts such as number of hours worked, hours of school operation, and other school working policies.

Horace Mann Charter Schools: There are two types of charter schools in Massachusetts: Commonwealth charter schools and Horace Mann charter schools. Commonwealth charters are granted by the state and lie outside of the jurisdiction of local school districts. The state legislation restricts the number of Commonwealth charter schools in each district. Horace Mann charter schools are granted by the state with approval from the local school district and the local teacher’s union. The state does not limit the number of Horace Mann charter schools in each district, which allows the districts to offer the flexibility of the charter schools on a larger scale. They receive per pupil funding from BPS, equal to the per pupil funding allocated traditional schools in BPS.

New Small Schools and Small Learning Communities: BPS has launched a number of new small high schools. Each small school has fewer than 500 students, a headmaster, and teaching staff. Many are organized around a theme or career interest. Other high schools in Boston offer Small Learning Communities (SLCs), which provide small, supportive learning environments within a larger high school. All of the SLCs within a school are overseen by the school headmaster and usually share facilities, teachers, policies, and other school-wide activities.

See chart at end of report for more details on the differences between Pilot schools and Horace Mann charter schools.

Takeaways: Lessons Learned

  • Stable and consistent leadership at the district level allows reform efforts to be focused and sustained. As superintendent for 11 years, Payzant has been able to see many of his ideas through, and his tenure has enabled him to move the dialogue from seeing school reform as a school-by-school effort, to supporting systemic school improvement from the district. Often, district leaders do not have enough time to work through their reform plans, whereas Payzant has had time to build in this continuous cycle of improvement. In addition, he effectively built personal capital through his long-term commitment to Boston, which has helped him develop long-standing relationships with the Mayor, school committee, and education reform partners.
  • Leadership at the school level is critical. Participants noted the quality of headmasters at the various high schools as one of the most impressive aspects of the tour. Great leadership at the building level is a key indicator of a successful school. Through such programs as the Aspiring Principals Program and the more selective Principals Fellowship, Boston has made significant investments in creating a talent pipeline into school administration and developing high-quality school leaders.
  • Boston has achieved a balance between top-down and bottom-up reforms, in which the district organizes, encourages, learns from, and supports innovative reforms at successful high schools. Part of the balancing act that Boston has achieved is determining what kinds of policies should be set by the district to create high standards and account for the different needs, capacities, and stages of reform at different high schools. The district created an incentive for schools to succeed: the more they demonstrate success, the more autonomy and power to make decisions they will get. This allows bottom up innovation to flourish, and as a result, there is an interesting range of small schools, small learning communities, Horace Mann Charters, State Charters, and Pilot schools to meet various student needs.
  • Changing a school or creating a new school requires careful consideration and time for planning. This is a lesson that BPS learned the hard way in some cases. Nevertheless, policy leaders should recognize that there are important elements to consider when starting new schools or changing school structures, which include a design and implementation plan; community involvement and support; a capable, supported school leader; and district leadership and help targeted at meeting each school’s individual needs.
  • School leaders benefit from having control over school financials and the freedom and authority to hire teachers and staff. Headmasters repeatedly said that their number one asset and biggest contribution to their success was the ability to assemble a group of talented teachers who are committed to the mission of the school and the success of the students.
  • Boston has been fortunate to have several strong intermediary organizations that have provided quality technical assistance, research, and development to schools and that have worked together collaboratively for many years. These organizations have various intellectual resources that bring in new ideas and people as resources for BPS and helps to strengthen the reform strategies.

Welcome Dinner Presentation by Paul Reville, President, The Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, Mass Inc.

Paul Reville is president of The Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, a think-tank that works to inform and promote significant improvements in public education in Massachusetts through research and policy development. With a long, distinguished career in standards-based education reform in Massachusetts, Reville set the context for the two-day visit by providing an historical overview of Massachusetts school reform efforts.

In the late 1980s, Massachusetts was struggling with budgets deficits, and as a result, the state maintained a low financial investment in education, and schools relied heavily on local property taxes. This resulted in great disparities across the state: some wealthier areas were spending four times the amount on education than other areas.

Various organizations, including the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education became involved in school reform around this time. Their involvement, as well as the 1993 ruling in McDuffy v. Roberson ordering the Commonwealth to provide equal educational opportunities for all students in Massachusetts, led to the passage of the Education Reform Act of 1993. Sweeping in scope and ambition, the Act charted a new course for Massachusetts public schools. The legislation focused on three major elements:

  • Accountability for funding tied to standards-based reform and student assessments: The Act ordered the development of statewide curriculum frameworks in all core academic subjects. It mandated statewide assessments at grades four, eight, and ten to determine students’ progress. It also required tenth graders to show competency in the frameworks in order to receive a high school diploma. Schools and districts that failed to perform adequately became subject to state receivership.
  • Changes to the existing education system to provide greater flexibility: Under the Act, student learning time in core academic subjects increased to a mandatory six and a half hours each school day (recess and study hall no longer counted). This change was precipitated by reports showing that American students were in core classes much less than their international counterparts. Charter schools were given permission to enter the educational market. Dual enrollment options for students were authorized and supported (funding has now expired, although the state is working to reinstate it). Certification and recertification requirements for teachers were strengthened and school headmasters were given more leadership flexibility.
  • School finance reform focusing on equity and adequacy: To remedy inequities in funding across schools and districts, the Act established an amount that all areas would be eligible to receive from the state or a “foundation budget”. This budget was designed to bring all schools to an adequate level of per-pupil spending. As such, the state’s contribution to education funding increased from 30% to 50% by the year 2000. School districts continued to raise additional taxes to contribute beyond the basic level provided by the state.

Most of the pressure and support to reform high schools came from sources outside of the school system. “Driven by the small schools movement, more attention started to go to reforming high schools about six or seven years ago. The SNS initiative in Boston and Worcester funded by foundations and the federal Smaller Learning Communities grants helped focus attention on the needs of high school students. In addition, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) created even higher stakes for students by requiring a passing score for graduation. Such policies forced policymakers to focus more than ever on helping high school students meet standards for graduation.

Ongoing Challenges

“It has been 13 years since the Reform Act passed and the Commonwealth is still trying to realize many of its ideals” said Reville.

Accountability: The adult accountability systems, particularly for teachers, still shows gaps, and the state needs to develop clear outcome goals around its accountability systems. Students are not being held to proficiency standards. The 8th and 9th grade standards are set at a basic level, rather than set to proficiency. Reville said, “The focus of standards-based reform must now be a campaign for proficiency.”

Building Capacity: Reville points out that the state department of education does not have the capacity to work in every district and school. However he also points out that the state education department might not have the expertise to build that capacity, and this continues to pose a challenge. “Educators have been saying, ‘if you want us to get everyone to a high level of proficiency, tell us how,” said Reville.

Adequacy: Massachusetts has one of the most progressive financing systems in the U.S. However, two years ago, plaintiffs filed suit against the state because they believed the 1993 reform act was insufficient to ensure that every child received an adequate education. The Massachusetts court ruled that the state had done enough to provide an equitable and adequate education for all students. However, the issue of adequacy is an ongoing struggle for the state to actualize.

Use of Time: The ways in which schools currently use time is out of sync with the current use-of- time research. Massachusetts is also considering extended-day legislation to fund grants in districts to extend the learning time by 30%. The state education department is awarding planning grants to a total of six to 12 school districts to allow them to try new ways of organizing teachers’ use of time and for professional development. In U.S. and International comparisons, research shows that teachers spend more time in front of students in the U.S. This research is important to consider when restructuring professional development in schools. Reville said “It is important to break down the sense of entitlement to isolation and develop more latitude for teachers to work together, examine student work together, and support each other.”

Labor and Management Collaboration: There are new pressures on education that are forcing change. First, the accountability demands from the federal, state, and local levels are a relentless drumbeat in the ears of policymakers and practitioners. The second pressure is competition from charter schools, pilot schools, and voucher programs. Finally, there are high demands for new teachers due to soaring attrition rates—sometimes as high as 40%. Reville said that these three pressures are bringing labor and management together to work on solutions to the problems in high schools.


Reville closed by sharing information about a successful high school, University Park Campus School (UPCS) in the most economically disadvantaged section of Worcester, Massachusetts. UPCS, a neighborhood school with grades 7-12, opened in 1997 though a partnership between Clark University, the Worcester Public Schools, and the University Park neighborhood. Reville explained that about 65% of these students come from homes where no English is spoken, 70% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 60% are students of color, many students are highly mobile, and the majority of students arrive at the school reading 3 to 4 years below grade level. When UPCS graduated its first class in the spring of 2003, every student had received a college acceptance letter, and the school has continued to improve student achievement each year. Yet, when the district experienced budget cuts, they decided to apply the same cuts to every school. To meet its reduced budget allocation, UPCS wanted to eliminate one teaching position and keep the extended time—part of their successful formula. But the school district refused and required them to cut back on teaching time, like all the other schools. Reville said that UPCS’s success gets highly marginalized within the system because, in many ways, the system resents what that school is accomplishing. UPCS has continued to offer the extended day model because teachers have committed to stay longer without additional compensation. Reville warns that such a policy should be flexible to support successful models and innovation and that the accomplishments of UPCS should be shared with other schools and districts.

Boston Community Leadership Academy and Another Course to College

The first full day of the trip started with a visit to two small Pilot high schools in the Brighton area of Boston, Boston Community Leadership Academy (BCLA) and Another Course to College (ACC). As Pilot high schools, the schools garner a high level of flexibility and autonomy from the school district. The schools share a building, located across the street from Brighton High School, a large high school with small learning communities. The schools share an auditorium, cafeteria, gymnasium, and faculty meeting space, but classroom space is divided by floors and sections of the building to maintain some physical separation between the schools.

Nicole Bahnam, Headmaster of BCLA, opened with a brief history of how BCLA was started. In the fall of 2000, BPS Superintendent Payzant appointed Bahnam as the new headmaster to revamp Boston High School, which was among the lowest performing high schools in the district. One year later, BPS decided to close Boston High School—a decision tied to both the condition of the school facility and low student performance. To prevent the closure, Bahnam worked with an outside organization and a 21-member school-based design team, comprised of parents, students, teachers, and administrators to develop a proposal and petition the district for Pilot school status. In September 2002, Boston High School transformed into Boston Community Leadership Academy, becoming the first traditional Boston high school to convert to Pilot school status. The name of the school was chosen to reflect the community’s involvement and leadership in the redesign of the school. In September 2004, BCLA moved from its old building, due to inadequate facilities and issues with mold, to the building it currently shares with ACC. Now it its fourth year, BCLA has a $3 million budget, 37 teachers, and 350 students. Staff includes guidance counselors, a full-time disciplinarian, and support safety staff.

The conversion to Pilot status gave the faculty an opportunity to reinvent the school, changing the academic expectations, climate and environment, and graduation requirements. Bahnam said that the school body consists of 25% special education students, about 30% English Language Learners and 75% eligible for free and reduced lunch. English Language Learners in 9th and 10th grades have their own set of teachers in core subjects, but by grades 11 and 12 all students are transitioned into mainstream classes.

Bahnam places her most experienced and successful teachers in 9th and 10th grades and in the ESL classes to leverage their expertise at these critical transition years. The school offers five Advanced Placement classes and a rigorous curriculum for all students. Classes are project-based and students develop portfolios and exhibitions that they present to a panel of community members. Additionally, all students are assigned to small group advisories designed to develop each student into a future leader beyond the wall of BCLA and to keep students connected to caring adults and to the broader school community.

When asked about student selection, Bahnam explained that all schools in Boston have a similar process in which 8th grade students select their high school choices. In addition to the regular process, BCLA requires students and parents or guardians to visit the school and meet with school staff. This gives parents/guardians and students an opportunity to hear what the school requires and understand the level of rigor and parental involvement expected.

Another Course to College (ACC) was initially started in 1976 as a college preparatory program for 11th and 12th grade students who wanted to be better prepared to enter a four-year college upon graduation. Jerry Howland, headmaster, said that since 1976, ACC has developed a very rigorous college preparatory curriculum with a focus on reading, writing, and critical thinking. In 2003, ACC began its transition into a high school with grades 9-12, expanding backwards to grade 10 and then grade 9 the following year as part of the district’s move to create new small schools.

Howland described the student selection process at ACC by saying, “we get students the way the district gets them.” The school receives students from the citywide lottery as the other district high schools. Unlike other Pilot high schools, ACC does not have a separate application process nor does it have a required parent or guardian meeting or session for admission.

Teachers at ACC get to know the students very well and have time to spend reviewing student work and providing feedback. For example, English teachers have a course load of no more than 50 students, which allows them more time to incorporate writing projects into their lessons. Howland stressed the point that ACC continues to be a college-preparatory school, requiring all students to apply to college as a graduation requirement. As such, the school maintains rigorous standards. Many 9th graders do not enter on track to complete the rigorous coursework four years later; therefore, ACC has lengthened the school hours for 9th graders, and teachers work with them after school. “Twelfth graders read 20-40 pages a night in English, and history and analytical writing classes meet every day,” said Howland. In addition to preparing students academically, ACC prepares students by giving them a high-level of ownership over their work and their success. “Students have more freedom with more responsibility. Seniors can leave during their one free period, but they must return on time to keep the freedom. We also have no rules about phones, hats, or other personal items.”

While Massachusetts no longer has state-funded dual enrollment, ACC continues its partnerships with Harvard Extension. Harvard Extension provides half of the tuition for Boston public school students and ACC covers the remaining cost out of its school budget. This arrangement is less costly for ACC than hiring an additional teacher. This allows students to earn college credit while in high school at very limited personal expense. Howland said that one downside to being a small school is the very limited set of electives ACC can offer students. For example, Spanish is the only foreign language class that ACC offers.

Both Howland and Bahnam agree that the best part about being a Pilot school is the freedom to hire staff and make staffing decisions. BCLA and ACC both have six class periods a day and every teacher has two free periods to plan and work together. BCLA has double period classes for math and English. Howland stresses that teachers at ACC have a significant amount of freedom to plan their own curriculum that meets the state standards.

Ongoing Challenges

Sustaining staff and maintaining consistency: At BCLA, teachers must work longer hours and stay after school to work with students, create exhibition programs (including recruiting judges, involving parents and students, etc.). Bahnam admits that the time demands and high-level of energy and investment is difficult to maintain over time.

Small class size: BCLA struggles to maintain small classes each year while the school continues to grow with a limited budget. The school has a commitment to keeping class sizes low, but they question whether they will be able to continue this practice as they move forward in the coming years.

Raising students’ skills for high-level work: As a college preparatory school, ACC has high standards for student work; however, the school continues to develop ways to get all students ready for college by graduation. They have created a Transition Program to give intensive support to students with low literacy and analytical skills. Howland particularly worries about unmotivated students who lack the necessary skills for higher level work.

Briefing with State Policy Leaders: David Driscoll, Commissioner of Education; Bob Costrell, Chief Policy Advisor to Governor; and Stafford Peat, Administrative Officer at MA Department of Education

In 1999, David Driscoll was named Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, where he has overseen the implementation of the MCAS high school exit exam, the school and district accountability system, the educator certification test, and significant reforms to special education. Driscoll opened the meeting by expressing his excitement over the changes and reforms he is seeing play out in classrooms and schools around the state. He led a discussion about the reform priorities and policies at the state level and the political and social context for the reforms.

Driscoll noted that the Education Reform Act of 1993 shifted some of the control of schools from total local responsibility to some state control. Most constituents were in agreement during the first few years of the shift. However, the implementation of MCAS, which specified minimum standards on the Grade 10 English and math exams to receive a high school diploma, created strong opposition. Over the last few years, there has been growing agreement on the need to improve education, as well as on the appropriate role of the state in that process.

Massachusetts has been a leader in the nation for setting high English and math standards tied to diplomas. Likewise, Driscoll commented that SAT test scores have increased each year for the past 14 years. He said that the critics of MCAS predicted high dropout rates, but the statistics show that the rate of dropping out has not changed since its implementation. However, while proud of their accomplishments, he acknowledges that the state is far from reaching its ideal: closing the achievement gap between white and non-white and wealthy and low-income students. This reminder comes each year when the state examines MCAS assessment results: in 2004, 86% of white 10th graders passed the English and math exams on first try, as compared to 60% of African American and 52% of Latino students.

Driscoll discussed three main areas that the state has focused on since 1999: student assessment, teacher certification, and school and district accountability.

  1. Student assessment: The state has created standards for each grade level and has aligned the MCAS to the state standards. Students can attempt to pass the MCAS up to three times and can appeal to take it again if they still have not passed.
  2. Teacher certification: In Massachusetts, teachers must get a master’s degree to get a teacher license and be considered “highly qualified” by the state. The 1993 Reform Act eliminated education majors and required that all high school teachers have a major in a content area. The law change in 1994 requiring teachers to earn a master’s degree in education or in a content area to get a teaching license. Teachers with initial certification can continue to teach, but must work toward a master’s degree to continue teaching. Additionally, every five years, teachers must take and pass a state test to get recertified. The first year that the teacher assessment was instituted, 31% of teachers failed to pass.
  3. School and district accountability: Turning around low-performing schools and closing the existing achievement gap is another area of focus for the state. “We would like to extend the day for school hours to help failing schools. The state looks at schools in corrective action, and we look at what kind of work they are doing to close the achievement gap. This is the kind of work that has led the state to a stronger role and to more control because districts don’t have the knowledge or capacity, and we have several districts with large numbers of low-performing students, such as Lawrence, Fall River, and Holyoke,” said Driscoll.

He also said that Boston is progressing well because of their size and the available resources, but in the small towns, it is an issue of capacity and parochialism. “We realized that small school districts did not even have the curriculum and assessments aligned. We needed to get more involved and directive, and at this point, both the democratic state legislature and republican Governor have come along to see that locals may not know how to do reform and as a result students are being hurt.”

Bob Costrell, Chief Economist for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Education Policy Advisor to Governor Mitt Romney, has directed policy research in various areas, most notably school funding, education reform, and municipal finance. Costrell stated education reform in Massachusetts has been rolled out in two phases: first, the 1993 Reform Act pushed the issue of funding and equity and now the state is tackling issues of accountability.

In September 2005, Governor Romney introduced a comprehensive Education Reform bill aimed at closing two gaps: (1) the gap between Massachusetts student performance and our international competition, particularly in math and science; and (2) the achievement gaps within the state, between high-performing and low-performing schools. It proposes pay for performance, differential pay for math and science teachers, and a clear focus on turning around failing schools. Costrell said that the state legislature is reluctant to take on these issues and has been slow to act on the proposal. With the help of the NGA, they are focusing much more deliberately on math and science, teacher training in math and science, expanding AP, and easing the requirements for master’s degrees by allowing districts to hire math and science teachers with a bachelor’s degree for non-tenure track jobs.

Costrell said that the Governor’s education agenda has had some controversial parts and some less controversial parts. For example, one controversial proposal is the Pay for Performance plan which, if passed, would provide cash bonuses for the state’s top teachers based on student test scores and evaluations of the teachers’ classroom performance. The differentiated pay for math and science teachers has also sparked controversy. Less controversial areas of the Governor’s education plan include the focus on high schools, math and science and closing the international gap in those areas.

The legislation also proposes the creation of the Commonwealth Teaching Corps to encourage individuals with subject matter expertise to become math and science teachers. The corps would add 1,000 high-qualified math or science teachers, who would receive $5,000 end-of-year bonuses tied to evaluations and mentoring provided by veteran teachers.

The Governor has put an extra $275 million in the budget for education, with $164 million unrestricted for education and $90 million to fund the pay for performance system, and help turnaround failing schools. “We want to tie some strings to this money, but it is a debate we are having since the state provides a low share of the total education funding in Massachusetts” said Costrell.” Of the total, 44% of education funding is from the state, but the investment has been increasing over the years. In 1993, state education funding was $1.3 billion; in 2003 it is $3.3 billion. “While we do not have a large state share of education funding, we target it to urban and poor rural districts, which allows us to be more directive with these districts.”

Stafford Peat, Student and Secondary Support Administrator, Massachusetts Department of Education is the Department’s lead on the NGA Honor States Grant Program. He began by listing statistics on the state’s education achievement levels based on data by researcher Jay Greene. Peat said that the overall, four-year graduation rate is 83%. The graduation rate is 59% for Black and Latino students. Beginning in fall 2006, the Student Information Management System, called SIMS, will have additional capabilities that will allow the state to accurately capture its own graduation rate data.

Peat said that the state is working with high education and the business community to re-examine its K-12 standards with an eye toward minimizing the current “quantum leap” many students face in moving from high school to college. He outlined the plan that the state plans to implement.

  • Curriculum Frameworks: To graduate from high school today, the state only requires students to take two mandatory courses, American History and physical education, and pass the MCAS, leaving remaining curricular requirements up to districts. Districts have implemented graduation requirements with wide variations of rigor from district to district. For example, 50% of districts require students to take at least two years of math and 27% require students to take at least two years of science to graduate. To raise the minimum level of rigor across the state, it is currently defining a recommended curriculum for college and work readiness. The new statewide curriculum framework will be aligned to the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education’s admissions standards, and will help students know what they need to take in high school to graduate ready to succeed in higher education and today’s workplace.
  • End of course Algebra II assessment: Peat said that students fail Algebra I at a rate higher than any other course. Yet, the research shows that taking Algebra II is a strong predictor of college enrollment and completion. Therefore, Peat said that the state is committed to improving math instruction and ensuring that all students are better prepared to take and complete Algebra II. “We are considering a variety of incentives for students who pass Algebra II, including scholarship opportunities or a high school diploma performance endorsement.
  • Dual Enrollment Statewide: Peat said that funding was cut for dual enrollment and that superintendents want to bring it back to provide pathways to college for students. The state would like to reinstate it with a particular focus on math and science to coincide with the newly required science portion of the MCAS this fall. Based on the Governor’s proposal, $2 million would be available for students, especially those who can not take Advanced Placement (AP) classes, to take math and science courses on college.
  • Communications Plan: The state is developing a communications plan to build and sustain public support for high school reform and to push for increased achievement in math and science. They are building a portal with information for educators, parents, students, and the general public.
  • Data Systems: The state is working to streamline its data systems by linking the K-12 and higher education data systems allowing them to better assess school, district, and college performance over time. Peat stressed that the new data system will supplement the current accountability system with value-added measures, such as the ability to measure individual student progress over time.

Priorities and Ongoing Challenges

Creating a Sense of Urgency: Massachusetts is one of the highest performing states in the country when comparing student test scores, graduation rates, college entrance, and other educational measures. Is it any wonder that the public is not outraged by the public education system and is not demanding change at a large scale? “We need to create a sense of urgency among the public in our state,” said Driscoll. The state communications plan will be used to promote awareness and create demand for education reform.

Promoting Positive Relationships: Driscoll said that the greatest impact on student achievement will take place at the classroom level. Therefore, he would like to see a greater emphasis placed on creating positive relationships between students and adults in the building. This comes down to excellent school leadership and school climate. Driscoll mentioned Boston’s principal leadership academy and teacher certification program as a way to influence the priorities in the school and classroom.

Scaling Up Reforms: Driscoll acknowledged that, as a state policy leader, one constant challenge is taking what works in one area to scale in other areas of the state. This has been a challenge particularly when looking at the great gains made in Boston—many of the achievements there have not been replicated elsewhere. However, it is important to understand the context in which the reforms in Boston have thrived, including high levels of foundation funding, sustained district leadership, and a clear and long-term vision of reform.

Boston Day and Evening Academy

Meg Maccini, headmaster of the Boston Day and Evening Academy, welcomed the group and gave an overview of the school and its history. Boston Evening Academy (BEA) first began in 1995 as an evening program, and in 1998, it became a Horace Mann Charter School, the first diploma-granting public evening school in Boston. In September 2004, the school added a day program for 9th graders who are over age and changed its name to the Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA). BDEA serves 325 students with classes running from 9 am to 2 pm for day students and 2 pm to 9 pm for evening students. In addition to regular classes, the school offers MCAS preparation, electives and sports, three balanced meals, and counseling and healthcare services. AXIS, a college counseling and access program funded by the Boston Plan for Excellence, is available to all students as well.

Throughout the day and evening hours, the school building is open for community meetings and training sessions.

BDEA’s mission is to serve students who have been underserved in traditional schools, including dropouts, students in danger of dropping out, and overage students. “We are trying to address the students that NCLB has left behind.” The approach is to encourage academic achievement through deep and meaningful relationships between adults and students. About 90% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch and the completion rate is about 90% for the day program and 70% for the evening program.

The curriculum is competency-based and covers five areas: math, science, humanities, personal development, and technology. The school follows the Coalition of Essential Schools philosophy of teaching depth over breadth. The student support department is the heart of the school. All Students have individual learning plans (ILPs) tailored to their specific needs and outlining the competencies and learning objectives that each student will work toward. The school uses an electronic system that tracks students’ progress against their ILPs.

The school is not required by the state to make Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB because students are often there for a short time period. “Alternative schools have been flying under the NCLB radar for a long time,” said Maccini.  However, being a Horace Mann charter brings with it a great deal of accountability, and students are still required to pass the MCAS exam to graduate. There is a natural tension between AYP and what you can teach students in such a short amount of time to ensure their basic competencies are met. Recognizing this, the state is starting to have conversations with alternative education schools about how to help them meet AYP in the future.

BDEA serves students within BPS and has an aggressive recruiting strategy to put information about the school into the hands of young people who are on the verge of dropping out. Teachers at BDEA are members of the teacher union, but most are willing to stay longer to work with students and even attend court dates, funerals, baby showers and other events to support students outside of school. “At BDEA teachers really care about kids and everyone has a ‘touch point’ where we support them outside of the school building,” said Maccini.

Teachers work together to review student work and prepare future lessons during common professional development time on Fridays. Students create portfolios of competencies and create student exhibits in the third trimester. For the exhibits, students develop a thesis question that involves a career or social service issue requiring primary and secondary research. Students prepare a paper, presentation, digital portfolio, and then students make their presentations to a board comprised of family members, friends, community volunteers, teachers, and oftentimes employers and college faculty. The school is deliberate about ensuring students have relationships with caring and accountable adults. BDEA assigns students to advisories (one advisor for every 15 students) to ensure that each student has a caring adult who is accountable for his or her success. BDEA has also created an alumni association, which currently has 30 former students.

Two students, Judy and Rosie, met with the group to share their experiences at BDEA. Both students came from other public schools in Boston and transferred to BDEA because they were overage and under credited. Judy and Rosie mentioned that the small size of the school encourages them to develop close relationships with teachers and advisors, which makes them motivated to come to school and do their best. They also shared how empowered they feel by the school’s deliberate focus on problem-solving and student-directed learning and assessment.

The school also has a distance learning program for students that are not able to attend classes and only need a few more credits to graduate. Jennie Hallisee, founder and director of the program described it as “triple D: distance, distributed, and differentiated.” The program started when Hallisee was running senior projects and received a grant to purchase 10 ibook laptops and the Plato software for online learning. Seniors set their own schedules and goals, which are aligned to their MCAS needs and ILPs. Ms. Hallisee monitors their work and progress using the software program. To enroll, students must be recommended to the program by a teacher or social service professional.

Meeting with Thomas Payzant, Superintendent of Boston Public Schools, and Kathi Mullin, Special Assistant to the Superintendent

Tom Payzant has been superintendent of Boston Public Schools since 1995, making him the longest serving urban superintendent in the country. Last year, he announced his plans to retire in 2006, and has since put a transitional plan in place. He described the reform approach, challenges, and lesson learned in BPS from his perspective.

Creating a System of Excellent Schools

In the mid-1990s, reform was often driven by individual schools in BPS and in much of the country, which led to slow, intermittent, and uneven changes across districts. Payzant believed that a systemic approach to school reform led by the district was necessary to support and organize school improvement. His goal was to create a system of good schools rather than create good schools within a system. Payzant said that while reform looks differently in every school, the district established cross-cutting expectations for all schools.

In addition to structural changes from large schools to small schools or small learning communities, the district focused on improvements to leadership development for school leaders, curriculum and instruction, and relationships between students and adults in the building. Payzant said that these three elements: quality of leadership, instruction, and curriculum are levers for education reform; smaller schools or SLCs allow you to focus on these keys.

Structural Changes

The initial reform work in Boston was around changing the size of the schools from large, comprehensive high schools to small schools or small learning communities. Only the three exam schools have not been impacted by this plan. The district’s approach to structural changes has varied greatly and Payzant said they have learned many lessons. For example, at South Boston High School (now Monument, Excel, and Odyssey), the transition to small schools was done without planning time; however, at Dorchester, the school had a yearlong plan to ease the transition to small schools. Also, many districts reconstitute (change the faculty and staff) comprehensive schools when they change to small schools, but this was not the case in Boston. School faculties were allowed to relocate elsewhere or stay at the new small school, which presented challenges to the change process as well.

Leadership Development

As a part of the Education Reform Act of 1993, headmasters were removed from collective bargaining, which empowered superintendents to make personnel decisions without seeking the school board’s approval. When Payzant arrived at BPS two years later, most headmasters were not driving quality instruction in their schools. Payzant changed the organizational chart to make all headmasters report directly to him instead of reporting to deputy superintendents. “During the first year of high school reform, I did not renew seven headmasters’ contracts, which sent the message that leadership was important.” In addition, all headmasters are on one-, two-, or three-year contracts.

BPS has employed various strategies to improve school leadership overtime. The Aspiring Principals Program brings individuals who are interested in becoming headmasters together monthly to learn about school leadership from experts in the field. The Principals Fellowship Program, funded by the Broad Foundation, is a more selective yearlong program for the top dozen prospects from the Aspiring Principals Program. The district developed the fellowship curriculum and oversees the program. In addition, the district pays fellows’ salaries for one year while they work in schools with master headmasters four days a week. Of the first group of fellows, 70% were hired as headmasters and the remaining fellows were hired as assistant headmasters.

Curriculum & Instruction

Pilot schools have the autonomy to develop and implement curriculum. Other small, non-pilot schools want autonomy as well, but have not been able to secure the teacher buy-in required to apply for pilot status. These schools have petitioned to have the autonomies with curriculum without the pilot status. The district has decided to allow teachers of English Language Learners and special education students earn more autonomy in curriculum and instruction when they show results through student progress.

Impacts of State Policies on BPS

Payzant gave his perspective on state policies that are helpful to district leaders.

  • State standards around curriculum and assessment have been key. Standards-based reform from the state level has promoted and supported our work.
  • While states should set high standards, they should be less prescriptive with graduation requirements (Boston has more rigorous graduation requirements that the state)
  • States should create quality curriculum frameworks and state assessments. Then the state should work to return test results to districts a soon as possible to allow districts and schools to work with students and use data to make decision for the next year. For example, the MCAS is taken by all 10th grade students in spring, but they do not receive the results until the following October.
  • States should conduct evaluations to determine the reliability of tests and assessments.
  • States should also look at diagnostics to make sure special education students are not overdiagnosed. In 1995, Payzant saw that 22% of BPS students were classified as special education students. Massachusetts had the most liberal state definition of special education, and a 17-year court case focused on compliance kept the focus off of misdiagnoses. Payzant created a focus on equitable balance and inclusion and the special education service delivery model in Boston to keep the district from overdiagnosis.

Ongoing Challenges and Priorities

  • Unacceptably low graduation rates
  • Quality teaching in hard to fill positions and subject areas (math and science)
  • Changes to the way that funding flows between schools and central offices—instead of having the central office pay for everything, some schools are requesting their allotment from the central district as discretionary money that they can use to purchase services for teaching and learning, special education or English Language Learners. It is possible that in the future, they could purchase these services from the central office or from another provider.

Meeting with the High School Renewal Workgroup

Boston has been fortunate to have several highly visible and well-connected organizations involved in the city’s education reform plan. Four organizations, called the High School Renewal Workgroup, were funded to work together as a part of the Schools for a New Society Initiative to provide expertise and support to the district. Superintendent Tom Payzant uses the working group to test new ideas, weigh options, and get feedback based on research and practice. The workgroup has a proactive role with the district as well. They produce case studies, evaluations, policy findings based on the district’s work with schools, and act as “critical friends” to Payzant. “When the workgroup’s research exposes negative findings related to BPS, we let the district know about it in advance so they are not surprised and can be prepared to respond,” said Lili Allen from Jobs for the Future.

In addition to their collaborative work, each organization also provides technical assistance to the district and schools separately. Organizations in the working group might have different policies, priorities, or ideas, but they are aware of this and are committed to working together to best support the superintendent. The group wants to work together and separately to create a sense of urgency (as Driscoll mentioned needing throughout the state) for school reform in Boston. Representatives of each of the four major partners met with our group to discuss their role in Boston’s education reform and to share insights from their work.

Boston Plan for Excellence (BPE) Boston Plan for Excellence is a local education foundation that works in close partnership with BPS to support instructional improvements in schools, including coaching, literacy, and advocacy around student voice and engagement.  The organization was started by an endowment, and though they get additional funding from other sources, the endowment allows them to do their core work of advocating on behalf of students. BPE is the lead organization responsible for the Schools for a New Society grant. BPE also convenes networks of teachers to focus on areas of instructional improvements, conducts action research with students, among other activities.

Jobs for the Future (JFF) is a national nonprofit research, consulting, and advocacy organization that works to strengthen society by creating educational and economic opportunity for those who need it most.  In Boston, JFF serves as fiscal agent for the Gates Foundation Small Schools grant, assists the High School Renewal Office in supporting the development of SLCs, and organizes peer learning opportunities across large high schools, small schools, Pilot schools, and alternative schools.  It also provides design and technical assistance to the new small schools to ensure that graduates make smooth transitions to further education and training. Much of JFF’s strength comes from the interaction of its local reform work and its national and state policymaking and research activities.

Boston Private Industry Council (BPIC) was started to strengthen Boston’s communities and its workforce by connecting youth and adults with education and employment opportunities that prepare them to meet the skill demands of employers in a changing economy. BPIC is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York to convene the Boston Compact, the city’s historic school improvement agreement between BPS, the Boston Teachers Union, the business community, higher education, and others. Through the Compact, the BPIC organized business partnerships and jobs and internships that connect the classroom to the workplace. Twenty-two PIC career specialists work with 150-200 students at various high schools to help place students in internships. BPIC’s staff calls graduates from previous years 10 months after graduation to track their progress and determine college-going rates.

Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) improves student learning in K-12 public schools and districts by creating small, democratic, and equitable schools. The center seeks to influence the larger public’s view on education to better support autonomous schools in which learning is purposeful and valuable beyond school. CCE also serves as the coordinating organization for the Pilot schools and Horace Mann charter scools and provides assistance in the design, implementation, and evaluation of new BPS small high schools. In January 2006, CCE released a report, Progress and Promise: Results from the Boston Pilot Schools, comparing outcomes of Pilot with non-Pilot Boston public schools students. The report documents significant achievement by students who attend the city’s Pilot schools.

Lessons Learned

  • Inclusive Representation: Partnerships like the High School Renewal Workgroup should expand to be more representative of the school reform efforts. For example, the group said that two primary partners that are missing from the group are higher education and a grassroots or community-based organization. The group expressed how difficult it has become for them to galvanize the voices of parents and communities since BPS has school choice throughout the district and students no longer attend “neighborhood schools.” “How can we better work to help parents understand the need to be engaged in school improvement? This is the conversation we need to start having,” said Dania Vazquez, Co-Director, Boston Pilot School Network at the Center for Collaborative Education.
  • Funding: Intermediary groups should be funded to work together. This group made clear that they have been able to sustain the workgroup in an organized manner because of the foundation funding they receive to operate as a group. The funding makes the workgroup a priority and a responsibility for which the organizations are accountable.
  • Common Purpose: Partnerships should start with a clearly articulated common purpose and engagement, which helps to focus the group on a common mission and moves the conversation forward. This is especially important as the group starts to work together.

Ongoing Challenges

  • Dropout Rates and Out-of-School Youth as Lever for Sense of Urgency: The group identified high dropout rates and high numbers of out-of-school youth as one ongoing challenge. However, they also mentioned the need to use this information as a “lever for urgency” since many are unaware of the high numbers of dropouts and out-of-school youth.
  • Information About College: There is a need to organize college guidance counselors around high school reform in the district. There is no postsecondary structure for getting information to young people equally and evenly.
  • College Completion Data: College preparation is still “ad hoc and stratified.” In addition, there is no clear measure of how well we are engaging and retaining young people once they are in college. This should be taken under consideration and research should be conducted to look longitudinally at college preparation, access, and retention.

Contact Information

Lili Allen

Program Director
Jobs for the Future
88 Broad Street, 8th Fl
Boston, MA 02110

Jim Argue

Education Committee
Arkansas Senate
5300 Evergreen Drive
Little Rock, AR 72205

Nicole Bahnam

Boston Community Leadership Academy
20 Warren Street
Brighton, MA 02135

Ilene Berman

Program Director, Education Division
Center for Best Practices
National Governors Association
Hall of the States
444 North Capitol Street, Suite 267
Washington, DC 20001-1512

Iris Bond Gill

Senior Program Associate
American Youth Policy Forum
1836 Jefferson Place, NW
Washington, DC 20036

Betsy Brand

American Youth Policy Forum
1836 Jefferson Place, NW
Washington, DC 20036

Robert Costrell

Education Advisor and Chief Economist
Office of Governor Mitt Romney
Commonwealth of Massachusetts
State House, Room 373
Boston, MA 02133

David Driscoll

Massachusetts Commissioner of Education
Massachusetts Department of Education
350 Main Street, Fifth Floor
Malden, MA 02148

Susan Heegaard

Executive Director
Minnesota Office of Higher Education
1450 Energy Park Drive, Suite 350
Saint Paul, MN 55108-5227

Judith Heiman

Deputy Secretary of Education
Commonwealth of Virginia
Office of Governor Tim Kaine
Patrick Henry Building
1111 East Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23219

Jerry Howland

Another Course to College
20 Warren Street
Brighton, MA 02135

Jimmy Jeffress

State Senator
Education Committee
Arkansas Senate
PO Box 904
Crossett, AR 71635

JoAnn LaBranche

Office of Middle and High School Reform
Rhode Island Department of Education
255 Westminster Street
Providence, RI 02903

Sharon Lee

Office of Middle and High School Reform
Rhode Island Department of Education
255 Westminster Street
Providence, RI 02903

Margaret Maccini

Phyllis Wheatly Complex
Boston Day and Evening Academy
20 Kearsarge Avenue
Roxbury, MA 02119

Kathi Mullin

Special Assistant to the Superintendent
Boston Public Schools
55 Malcolm X Boulevard
Boston, MA 02120

Mary Ann Nelson

Assistant Commissioner of Education
Minnesota Department of Education
1500 Hwy 36 West
Roseville, MN 55113

Ligia Noriega

Excel High School
South Boston Education Complex
95 G Street
Boston, MA 02127
617-635-9870 ext. 2105

Virginia Ordway-Macrina

Odyssey High School
South Boston Education Complex
95 G Street
Boston, MA 02127

Thomas Payzant

Superintendent of Schools
Boston Public Schools
26 Court Street, 7th Floor
Boston, MA 02108-2505

Stafford Peat

Student and Secondary Support Administrator
Massachusetts Department of Education
350 Main Street
Malden, MA 02148-5023

Jonathan Pizzi

Monument High School
South Boston Education Complex
95 G Street
Boston, MA 02127
617-635-9865 ext. 1105

Neil Sullivan

Executive Director
Boston Private Industry Council
Two Oliver Street, 7th Floor
Boston, MA 02109

Carlos Valverde

Education Policy Specialist
National Conference of State Legislatures
7700 East First Place
Denver, CO 80230

Dania Vazquez

Co-Director, Boston Pilot School Network
Center for Collaborative Education
1135 Tremont Street, Ste. 490
Boston, MA 02120

Linda Wallinger

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction
Virginia Department of Education
James Monroe Building
101 North 14th Street, 15th Floor
Richmond, VA 23219

Pilot School

Horace Mann Charter School


Boston Public Schools (BPS) Superintendent and joint BPS and Boston Teachers Union (BTU) Steering Committee responsible for oversight and evaluation Massachusetts Board of Education responsible for oversight and evaluation
School quality review every four years(3 day visit) Charter renewal every five years(4 day visit)
Under district oversight only Under state and district oversight
No requirement for annual audit as general school funds are managed by BPS Must do an annual audit and produce annual report as general school funds are managed by the school
Board of Trustees evaluates school principals with Superintendent having final authority Board of Trustees has complete authority over school principals’ evaluations


Employs certified teachers at district salary level Employs certified teachers at district salary level
Affected by personnel ‘bumping’ during time of lay-off Exempt from personnel ‘bumping’ during time of lay-off
Pilots have voluntarily agreed to use the BPS teacher evaluation system but can also establish their own additional teacher evaluation processes Authorized to develop own teacher evaluation system apart from BPS

Union and District

BTU/BPS pilot school agreement exempts schools from conditions defined by general contract; Work conditions are defined at the school level Exempt from conditions defined by general contract; Charter proposal defines work conditions for schools
Exempt from school committee policies and district regulations Exempt from school committee policies and district regulations
Each must have an appeals and dispute resolution process that a teacher can use in the event of a dispute with an administrator Can develop own grievance procedures at schools


Lump sum per pupil funding formula based on BPS average cost per pupil for regular education, ELL, special education, and vocational education students Different lump sum per pupil funding formula (as own district) leads to a slightly higher per pupil amount
Has the choice of purchasing select discretionary central office services, or adding the per pupil funds to its lump sum budget Has the choice of purchasing a wide range of discretionary central office or adding the per pupil funds to its lump sum budget
Title I funds and other state grants administered by BPS Title I funds and other state grants administered by the state
Facility provided by BPS At no cost if housed in a city-owned building; Schools pay for own facility if housed in a non-city owned building


MCAS results “count” toward BPS results and are published along with other BPS schools MCAS results do not “count” toward BPS results and are published separately from BPS in a grouping with other charter schools
Report cards and diplomas administered by BPS Report cards and diplomas administered by BPS
Data disaggregated and provided automatically by BPS Need to send data to BPS Central Office to be disaggregated (takes longer)


Develops own admissions process but can not be academically selective Can determine own admissions/selection process (may be academically selective), but must hold lottery if number of acceptable applicants exceeds availability
If school falls below 5% of its projected enrollment, it must repay the district the per pupil differential under 5%; if school goes over 5% of its projected enrollment, BPS adds to its budget the per pupil differential above 5% If enrollment falls below projection, school must repay BPS
Required to accept substantially separate special education students Exempt from requirement to take substantially separate special education students (but may choose to take them voluntarily)

This brief, written by Iris Bond Gill, summarizes a field trip that took place on March 12-14, 2006 in Boston, Massachusetts. Betsy Brand, AYPF and Carlos Lopez, National Conference of State Legislatures also contributed to the contents of this report.

The trip, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supports the Honor States Grant Program, an initiative of the NGA Center for Best Practices, by providing hands-on professional development to state policy leaders working on high school redesign.

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) is a non-profit, nonpartisan professional development organization that bridges youth policy, practice, and research for professionals working on youth policy issues at the national, state, and local levels.



The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.