By Jim Stergios 

WITH BOSTON Superintendent Thomas Payzant stepping down at the end of the school year, Mayor Menino and the search committee need to find a replacement who will build on the foundation Payzant has laid and continue his reforms.

Student performance is what counts and, since 2003, Boston has had the largest gains in fourth- and eighth-grade math scores among the 11 cities participating in the National Assessment on Educational Progress Trial Urban District Assessment. In these trial tests, Boston outpaced Chicago, the District of Columbia, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York City.

These gains arise from Payzant’s support for standardized testing, school choice, and smaller schools. He implemented an improved school-assignment process and had all 145 public schools hold open houses for parents. Payzant presided over the opening of 17 of Boston’s pilot schools with at least seven more to come over the next few years. Under his leadership, several high schools were divided into smaller, autonomous schools so that students would get more attention from teachers.

Payzant’s 11-year tenure — three times longer than the average for a superintendent of a major Massachusetts urban district — brought great stability to the city’s school system as he implemented these changes. However, there is still much more to be done. Almost half (63) of Boston’s 145 schools are underperforming, according to federal standards. The number of students in the district’s schools has dropped from 62,000 in 1993 to about 58,000 today, because residents with school-age children continue to flee to the suburbs and a quarter of the school-age population is educated outside the district system. There are 16,000 students on the waiting lists for public charter schools and Metco.

Expanding the range of choices can make a difference. The new superintendent will need to be open to allowing for the creation of more innovative public charter schools like the MATCH School and popular pilot schools like the Lyndon School. He or she can make these choices more sustainable by systematically integrating student performance data into the training of teachers and principals, decentralizing school management, and actually closing failing schools. The public school district in Edmonton, Canada, has a longer history with such reforms and has seen impressive results. The Edmonton district has strong unions, 80,000 students, 200 district schools, and wide achievement gaps between white Canadians and the Native American and Inuit populations. Armed with a wealth of data — test scores, dropout rates, retention and graduation rates, and student reading and math levels — Edmonton parents cash in a ”passport” every spring at the public school of their choice. Because public funding follows the child, school principals have enormous incentives to innovate and improve their schools.

Principals use student performance data to develop individual reading plans for students below grade level and provide individual follow-up. They make most financial and budgeting decisions, lead teacher development, and ensure that the central office’s teacher and principal training programs are resulting in improved student performance. They also spend more than half their time in classrooms, observing teachers, providing feedback, and reviewing student data with teachers.

In Edmonton, student performance has improved and the number of schools and choices has grown, including some with intensive programs in non-traditional languages. Edmonton has not been reluctant to close poorly performing schools or to open new schools when there is parental demand. Competition has been such a successful tool that several private schools have joined Edmonton’s public system. With their membership growing, union support for performance measurement and the Edmonton model has grown.

Boston’s students deserve to have access to the same kind of educational choices. The city needs a superintendent who will build on Payzant’s notable reform legacy in the Boston Public Schools by advancing even greater school-based management and accountability, a system where funding follows the child, an understanding that the district’s success means improvement in students’ academic performance, and far more innovation.

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute.