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As a leading educator and career-long community leader, Hardin Coleman has served on may influential boards and committees. Most recently he was cochair of Boston’s External Advisory Committee for School Assignment, where he was instrumental in establishing a new formula for school choice.

Now Coleman, dean of the BU School of Education, has been appointed to the seven-member Boston School Committee (BSC) to complete the term of former member John Barros, who stepped down in April. Mayor Thomas M. Menino (Hon.’01) announced Coleman’s appointment on June 13, noting his “leadership in one of our city’s finest higher education institutions, his extensive work with educators, counselors, and other partners, and a distinct perspective of Boston’s schools and families through his recent work to improve our system’s school choice process.”

SED dean since 2008, Coleman holds degrees in counseling and psychology from Stanford University, the University of Vermont, and Williams College. Bostonia recently asked him about what needs to be done to improve Boston’s public schools, the challenge of finding a replacement for Superintendent Carol Johnson, who is stepping down after six years, and whether he’ll seek election to a full term when his interim term expires in January 2014.

Bostonia: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the Boston School Committee?

Coleman: Creating a system that holds schools accountable for improving student performance, particularly among children who come from poverty or are English language learners. Under Superintendent Johnson, many schools have demonstrated great improvement. The BSC needs to find a way to take these improvements to scale. In school-speak, it needs to eliminate level 4 (significantly underperforming) schools and increase the percentage of level 2 schools. The second major challenge is getting the resources needed to drive significant improvement.

Where does Boston stand among the nation’s major cities with respect to public education, and what do you think are its strong points?

Last year the superintendent won a national award for her performance, and the district won a national award several years ago, which shows our national reputation is very strong. One of the reasons we performed well in relationship to other urban districts has been the longevity of our superintendents (Johnson was here for 6 years and the previous superintendent for 10). The average tenure nationwide is three years. That stability is very important in an urban school district. Another advantage for the district is a mayor who has made educational outcomes a priority for the city. A third strength is the high quality of the Boston teacher corps and a fourth is the variety of academic programming available to a diverse student body.

Boston University BU, School of Education SED, Dean Hardin Coleman, Boston School Committee, school assignment plan 

SED Dean Hardin Coleman has been named to an interim term on the Boston School Committee. Photo by Cydney Scott

What should the priorities be in selecting a new superintendent?

School improvement research is demonstrating that the essential factors that lead to improved academic performance are the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom and the principal in charge of the building. The next superintendent needs to show that she or he can recruit, retain, promote, and support great teachers and principals.

How did your involvement in the school choice system overhaul prepare you for this post?

The time I spent on the External Advisory Committee on School Assignment gave me an intimate view of the difficulty this district has in making quality education available for all students, particularly those who are in communities of poverty. It highlighted the importance of making this information available to the public and the need to create a system that is accountable for improving.

Do you think the committee can solve its differences with the teachers union or is the relationship destined to become increasingly adversarial?

The committee’s primary responsibility is to support the ability of effective teachers to do their jobs well. In addition to respecting and honoring due process in terms of employment, the committee needs to work with the Boston Teachers Union to increase the percentage of highly effective teachers in the classroom in every school in Boston.

How has the role of school committees evolved in recent years and how must they adjust to changing times?

Historically (I strongly recommend SED lecturer Joe Cronin’s book Reforming Boston Schools, 1930 to the Present), school committees have not always been judged by how well they support student performance. Now and in the future, that needs to be the primary goal of the committee. The current committee has done an excellent job of focusing on the needs of students, and I look forward to continuing that tradition.

What can be done to continue to boost achievement and high school graduation rates? What are the biggest obstacles to success?

To start, we need to create more family-supporting jobs for graduates of the Boston public schools so that getting that diploma will have a purpose. If we reduce the poverty rate in the city, we will raise academic test scores and increase graduate rates. Second, we need to improve the quality of the academic experience in our underperforming schools. Third, we must improve the articulation between the high school curriculum, the community college curriculum, and the needs of local businesses. The biggest obstacle to success is the difficulty of getting different institutional systems (e.g., preschool, K-12, and community colleges) to be effective collaborators.

Can you comment on the value of charter schools? Should the state lift its cap on new ones?

As I review the research in education, charter schools are not the most effective strategy for producing sustainable improvement. As I mentioned earlier, the important factors are effective teachers and principals. The work that Boston public schools are doing to provide more effective professional development to its teaching corps and holding principals and network superintendents accountable for the academic performance of our schools is the most important focus of school reform. I think there are many charter schools that are very effective for many of our children. To create equitable access to a quality education for all of our students, however, I think we need to focus on recruiting, retaining, and supporting excellent teachers.

Will you seek a full term in 2014?

That is my intent.