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Lessons from a city school superintendent

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Thomas Payzant retired Friday after 11 years as superintendent of Boston's public schools, an unusually long tenure for leaders of American urban school districts.

This will be his first summer off work since he was 13, he says. But he's not waltzing away after a career in which he oversaw five districts and served under President Clinton as an assistant secretary of education. He'll be back in September – this time across the river in Cambridge as a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

When Dr. Payzant took the helm in his hometown of Boston, his goal was to improve the whole school system, not simply create pockets of success. His experiences – and suggestions for the future – offer a glimpse into the sustained momentum required to make progress in urban districts.

With the support of Mayor Thomas Menino and Boston's appointed School Committee, Payzant's blueprint included new curricula and an assessment system to give teachers detailed data so they could see what works well. He infused the district with professional development opportunities, including coaching for teachers and principals. And he has converted the city's large high schools into smaller learning communities.

During Payzant's tenure, math and reading scores have risen for high schoolers in all racial and ethnic groups. Yet gaps between some groups remain, something to be tackled by his predecessor.

Payzant took some time out from packing up his office last week to talk with the Monitor. Excerpts follow:

What can a child entering the school system expect that he or she wouldn't have found 10 years ago?

Let's start with preschool and early-childhood education. One of the first major policy recommendations I made to the School Committee ... was a full-school-day program for 5-year-olds. By the 2009-10 school year, every 4-year-old should have [that] opportunity. And that's important because in urban school districts, often the achievement gap is evident ... in kindergarten.

What will it take to close achievement gaps in urban districts?

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