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Byline: Sarah Carr
BOSTON _ When Thomas Payzant took over as superintendent of Boston Public Schools in 1995, he worried that some students were lucky enough to attend the "star schools," where the best teachers educated poor children with stunning success.
But just some.
He thought it wasn't enough to have a handful of schools and teachers beating the odds in struggling urban neighborhoods. He wanted to have a whole district that could do it.
Payzant has come to epitomize a national movement that is also being felt in Milwaukee Public Schools and elsewhere. In the last decade, urban school reform has shifted from the notion of the valiant principal who revitalizes a school, but whose work cannot be duplicated, to focus on the heroic superintendent, often top-down in approach, who creates more consistent standards among schools.
"There are a lot of stories about heroic and individual school change that are interesting but can't go to (large) scale," said Robert Felner, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Louisville. "You need something that is systemic, and that doesn't depend on the few heroic principals and the heavy lifting they are able to do despite the system."
As school districts across the country, including MPS, experiment with school reform based at the system level, the experience and tensions in this New England city are instructive.
The trick, in Boston and everywhere else, is to balance the more heavy-handed, top-down approach with a respect for the creative front-line skills of teachers and administrators. It's a delicate act: to become more consistent without becoming rigid; to be hierarchical without squashing grass-roots fervor; to elevate the worst schools without stifling the best.
To pull it off requires nurturing what seem to be opposing philosophies, as articulated by …