Editorial: A history test for Melinda Boone

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The Norfolk (Virginia) Public Schools appointed Worcester Public Schools Superintendent Melinda J. Boone its new superintendent. Pending a release from her current contract, Boone will start her new job as soon as Dec. 1.

Thursday’s announcement effectively puts an end to her six-year run as the head of the city’s schools.

How will Boone’s tenure be remembered? Will she forever be known as a data-driven academician and taskmaster who drove student achievement, as her most ardent supporters claim? Or will she be remembered for being a reckless and aloof bureaucrat whose policies endangered students, as her most vocal critics contend?

Before we answer that, we as a community need to come to grips with some uncomfortable facts about the position of superintendent in a city with 25,000 students, a staff of 3,900, and a budget of nearly $370 million.

Melinda J. Boone

Worcester Public Schools

Melinda J. Boone

It would be impossible to please all the constituencies — teachers, parents, students, School Committee, political and civic leaders, media — many of whom have competing agendas and high, sometimes unrealistic expectations.

With all these important constituencies, disagreements are inevitable. It’s no wonder the term “embattled school superintendent” returns 206,000 results in a Google search.

As of 2014, the average tenure of current urban school superintendents, as surveyed by the Council of the Great City Schools, was just 3.18 years. Indeed, the system to which Boone will return has hired four superintendents in five years. By contrast, her six-year tenure in Worcester appears stately.

And then there’s this damning conclusion from The Brookings Institution study, “School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?”

“Superintendents may well have impacts on factors we have not addressed in our study, such as the financial health of the district, parent and student satisfaction, and how efficiently tax dollars are spent. And to be certain, they occupy one of the American school system’s most complex and demanding positions. But our results make clear that, in general, school district superintendents have very little influence on student achievement in the districts in which they serve.”

Let us forget for the moment the tragic irony of finding ourselves unable, in this age of standardized tests and metrics-based education, to properly quantify the effectiveness of the one person responsible for student achievement in a system so vast. Is there truly no way to gauge Boone’s tenure?

We believe there is a way. However, rather than attempt to tally her results, we need to examine what happened while she was in charge of the Worcester Public Schools. Some highlights:

Union Hill School has been transformed from a Level 4 school, the second-worst designation in the state, to a Level 1. Chandler Elementary School, another early Level 4 school, was removed from the list a year later.

In addition, the school department’s finances have been brought under control, from a deficit in 2013 to a surplus a year later, earning an award from the Association of School Business Officials International.

Most importantly, dropout rates have decreased and test scores and graduation rates rose.

If, at the conclusion of Boone’s stay in Worcester, what we can say about her time in Worcester is that more children stayed in school, were better prepared for adulthood, and graduated, there’s nothing wrong with that.

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