Pilot Schools Research Paper Starter

Pilot Schools

(Research Starters)

The Boston pilot school system came into existence through social and political conditions that shaped the new schools - conditions that affect Boston's pilot school system to this day. To further distinguish what comprises a pilot school, this paper compares pilot schools with the traditional public schools that co-exist with them within the same public school district, and summarizes the basic characteristics of pilot schools. The paper then analyzes the evidence on whether pilot schools are more effective institutions than traditional school systems, examines the various problems that pilot schools face, and concludes with citing current and future trends relating to pilot school projects around the nation.

Keywords Admissions Screening; Boston Public Schools (BPS); Boston School Committee (BSC); Boston Teachers' Union (BTU); Charter School; Massachusetts Education Reform Act; Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS); Pilot School; U.S. Department of Education


A good way to examine the birth of the Boston Public School system's (BPS) pilot school project is to look at the history of the Fenway pilot school, which was among the first pilot schools to start in Boston, Massachusetts. The history of Fenway Middle College High School also sheds light on the social and political background that caused the emergence of the Boston pilot school program. In 1994, the Boston Teachers' Union (BTU) and the Boston School Committee (BSC) signed a landmark contract that was the foundation upon which pilot schools could be legally created - but Fenway, a public high school in Boston, had already requested a change to become a charter school. This was because in 1993, just months before the BPS district program came into existence, The Massachusetts State Legislature had passed the Education Reform Act, and this caused a significant change in the possibilities for public schools. Part of the Education Reform Act was an authorization to legally create 25 new charter schools. Fenway quickly applied for the new charter school status, and within a few months received one of the first charters granted under the new act. Fenway was quick to apply for charter school status, and the reasons give us insight into problems within Boston's public school system.

The Birth of the Pilot School

According to the top administrators of Fenway at the time, the school's administration felt "fatigued from years of union grievances and central office resistance to Fenway's progressive ideas about curriculum, assessment, and organization" (Nathan & Myatt, 1998, p. 279). Charter school status gave Fenway teachers and administrators the opportunity to take control of their school so that many operations - like curriculum and assessment decisions - were not at the mercy of a distant and bureaucratic central office controlled by district administrators. Under the new private charter, the principal, or "headmaster" as it is known in BPS, could hand over many decisions concerning classroom content and management to the teachers themselves, and they would not have to rigidly obey all the dictates and procedures of the BTU or BPS central offices.

It seems that specific social, legal and political pressures caused the birth of pilot schools. The BPS and BTU came to the realization that, if they did not somehow quickly compete with the new charter schools invoked by the Massachusetts Legislature, Boston's public school system would likely lose some of its best schools, and the BTU would lose its strength as well as job capacity. Fenway had already received the new charter school status, which was about to effectively remove that school from any relationship to the public school system as well as the BTU. Nathan and Myatt (1998) note that, within months of Fenway having received its independent charter, "the Boston Public Schools (BPS) - in a rare alignment of the teacher union, the school committee and superintendent, and the mayor - secured a teacher contract that created 'in-district' charters to be known as 'pilot schools'" (Nathan & Myatt, 1998, p. 279). The sudden, new plan for creating an in-district pilot school system can be interpreted in a number of ways, or perhaps was motivated by a combination of factors relating to the parties involved in creating the plan. The BTU was responding to the privatization trend that was happening "at an alarming rate" in other cities; the superintendent, who administered the district in a traditional and conservative way, was showing a movement toward "more progressive ideas." The new mayor was demonstrating his intention and support for "improving the public school system" (Nathan & Myatt, 1998, p. 279).

One City's Experiment

Peirce echoes the political and pragmatic necessity to set up pilot schools when he writes that "Boston's first-in-nation experiment with pilot schools began in 1995 when Mayor Thomas Menino and the Boston Teachers Union, worried about the growing popularity of charter schools, decided to allow limited numbers of pilot schools as long as two-thirds of any school's faculty voted in favor, and the union could veto any new school" (Peirce, 2006, ¶ 8). It is important to note that the Massachusetts lawmakers' authorization for the state's first charter schools created the possibility for the growth of a non-centralized system of schools. The schools would be exempt from many state regulations and, even more important for the BTU, it was to be a school system "free of the need to hire unionized or state-certified staff members" (Hendrie, 1998, ¶ 5). The Boston school leaders and the city teachers' union agreed to allow a modified version of charter-like schools that would then be "governed by the city school board and must use unionized teachers" (Hendrie, 1998, ¶ 6).

Thus, the agreement between the Boston Teachers Union and city and school officials offered high schools like Fenway (though the plan eventually included 10 elementary and middle schools as well) the opportunity to function in effect like charter schools, while staying within the district as pilot schools. Pilot school status contractually meant much more autonomy and control over curricula, hiring decisions, scheduling, and budgeting. The teachers would benefit by having "smaller class sizes and student loads, a degree of freedom in course content and instructional approach, and time for planning and collaboration with their peers" (Manzo, 2007b, ¶ 9).

Charter v. Pilot School?

This new public school design caused Fenway to face a very important question that led to a critical decision: should Fenway keep its newly-awarded charter school status, or should it cancel its new charter and stay within Boston's public school district as a new pilot school? The pilot school program would give schools like Fenway what they had previously sought through obtaining charter status. Pilot schools would be freed from "district mandates and union-negotiated rules, allowing principals ... to hire teachers who are committed to a school's mission and agree to longer work hours" (Manzo, 2007b, ¶ 13).

Nathan and Myatt (1998) give an important view from behind the scenes as to what ultimately motivated Fenway (and by extension, other schools) to relinquish the new charter school status so as to gain pilot school status and remain within the BPS system. The authors write that many of the parents, when deciding whether Fenway should keep its charter or become an in-district pilot school, felt that the BPS pilot status was a safer alternative. Some parents had already seen their children attend charter schools that had failed to make it, so this of course concerned them. Also, some pointed out that a new legislative act could suddenly end charter funding or otherwise curtail the progress of running a truly independent charter school. A pilot school, as part of the district, might be more successful at attracting a diverse student population. Nathan and Myatt conclude that, "even though there was great skepticism about the school system's ability to keep its promises to the pilots, the fickle nature of the legislature and questions about its commitment to education reform made us seriously consider this [pilot school] alternative" (Nathan & Myatt, 1998, p. 279).

Hendrie (1998) cites yet another reason that Fenway was inclined to become a pilot school. He writes that, "Linda Nathan, the school's codirector, said the conservative political agenda of charter school supporters in Massachusetts helped sour the school on keeping its charter" (Hendrie, 1998, ¶ 16). For all of the above reasons, Fenway cancelled its newly awarded state charter in order to become an in-district pilot school. Other public schools that were heading in the charter direction followed suit, and the nation's first pilot school system within a public district got under way.

What is a Pilot School?

The current pilot school system is run by independent governing boards, and Boston's pilot schools are free from many union and school system restrictions. Manzo (2007a) notes that, "given the increased freedoms, pilots were charged with producing better student results" (¶ 13). The defining characteristics of a pilot school, then, are the following:

• A smaller student population of 200-300 students for the entire high school

• A smaller number of students per classroom to increase one-on-one style instruction

• Operation and oversight of the pilot school by independent governing boards

• Autonomy from district administration for curricula decisions/assessment procedures

• Autonomy from district administration in budget, governance, and also personnel

• Autonomy from any hindering practices of teacher unions (Nathan & Myatt, 1998).

Thus, pilot schools are smaller than regular high schools, and have a great deal more autonomy from a central district administration. However, these outward characteristics are all sought in an effort to make a fundamental change in the inner workings of the school. As the administrators at Fenway put it, they believed that the curricula and school standards should be shaped by those who work within and with the school, meaning the students, staff, parents, and advisors. The administration also desired that these same constituencies - rather than a distant and often uninformed central office - should help decide how much time and money is allotted to personnel, instructional materials, professional development, etc. The school also sought the right to "search for and hire the best possible faculty - teachers who knew and were committed to our particular values, community, and mission" (Nathan & Myatt, 1998, p. 280).

In fact, if we look at the objectives of the...

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