Nation & World

Cronin takes long view of Boston schools, from busing to the MCAS

5 min read

The complicated history of the Boston Public Schools system is marked by racial strife, corruption, mismanagement, and ultimately, said one former Harvard professor last week, salvation.

Many remember the bleak images of the violence and unrest that accompanied forced busing in the city in the 1970s, the response to a federal court ruling that required the city to desegregate its schools.

The turbulence and subsequent flight of countless members of the middle class to the suburbs signaled a low point for the public school system, which, in its earliest years, was considered the most prestigious in the country.

Joseph Cronin ’56, MAT ’57, came to Harvard on April 16 to examine the system’s struggles and successes over the past 76 years, detailed in his new book, “Reforming Boston Schools, 1930-2006: Overcoming Corruption and Racial Segregation” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

A former Harvard associate professor in the Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Cronin was the state’s first secretary of educational affairs in 1971. The position was phased out over time but was recently re-created by Gov. Deval Patrick. The new secretary of education is Harvard’s Paul Reville, HGSE lecturer on educational policy and politics and director of the School’s education policy and management program.

Cronin presented his talk as part of the HGSE’s Burton and Inglis Lecture. The discussion that followed included Thomas Payzant M.A.T. ’63, C.A.S. ’66, Ed.D. ’68, HGSE professor of practice, and Robert Peterkin, Francis Keppel Professor of Educational Policy and administration director of the Urban Superintendents Program.

In addition to a stark racial imbalance and racism in the schools, said Cronin, the Boston system also suffered from poor management and rampant corruption. In the 1930s, said Cronin, teachers had to pay officials for the jobs they wanted. A survey of the system commissioned by the watchdog agency the Boston Finance Commission in the 1940s, which recommended a number of improvements, was summarily ignored. In the 1950s, when an outspoken, Harvard-educated lawyer was elected to the chair of the school committee and pushed for reforms, he was harassed for his efforts.

“For his ideas he was vilified, and at a public hearing hit over the head with an umbrella, his home phone filled with abuse, even death threats,” said Cronin.

For years, he noted, the practice of bribing city officials was status quo.

“To raise money for their re-election campaigns, school committee members organized receptions and birthday parties for themselves. … And to become a principal or assistant superintendent, it helped to attend and be seen,” he said, pointing to the omnipotent board that approved everything from promotions to salaries and transfers and was, for many, merely a stepping-stone to higher office. “From the 1950s to the 1980s it behaved more like an employment bureau or placement agency. … Educational programs and policies were not major agenda items.”

In addition, help and support for many years from the surrounding colleges and universities was nonexistent. Harvard and MIT’s early efforts to partner with the Boston schools “foundered,” said Cronin, adding that they later chose to focus their attention on suburban schools.

Peterkin, who served as deputy superintendent in the Boston Public Schools system from 1980 to 1984, said that Harvard began a renaissance about 20 years ago under the guidance of then-Dean Patricia Graham, with the creation of a variety of programs geared toward leadership and involvement in urban schools. Today, students from Harvard are involved at all levels in Boston’s public schools — from intern to teacher to administrator, and 10 faculty members of the HGSE are former Boston public school teachers and administrators.

After the rulings in the 1970s to enforce desegregation, other changes were slowly made, offered Cronin. More minority teachers and administrators were hired, and teachers won important collective bargaining rights. In the following decades, strong mayors spoke up and fought for improvements in the school system, including the change from an elected school committee to one appointed by the mayor. After 1995, Cronin noted that Payzant, a “thoroughly seasoned” superintendent, enacted a series of measures to make Boston Public Schools better.

Payzant, Boston Public Schools superintendent from 1995 to 2006, helped narrow the achievement gap on state and national assessment exams through a number of reforms, including teacher training and math and literacy programs.

“The good news is that there are a lot of people who are interested and want to get engaged and involved,” Payzant said. “The big challenge is how do you deal with all the different players and get them focused in a way that they can provide support around a few things that really will make a difference.”

While there are still many challenges ahead, noted Cronin, recent MCAS scores have showed huge gains, SAT scores have improved, and more students are graduating from the Boston Public Schools and attending college.

As a clear indicator of its gains, Boston won the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2006, which recognizes school districts across the country that have made significant progress in student achievement.