John McDonough: “We’re all agreed that the student interest comes first.”

It’s pretty much a consensus, among interested parties, that school superintendent John McDonough, now serving “interim” should continue on, nothing “interim” about it. He is bringing major reform to school. Administration, to the transportation of students, and to school department management. Conflicts afoot over testing, curriculum standards, and the debate over charter schools do not slow him down or divert his momentum. He implements mandated standards and such tests as are wanted, and on charter schools, he refuses to take sides with or against.

That is leadership, and every urban institution badly needs it, all the time.

I had a chance to talk with McDonough just now. I asked him four questions, and he provided answers as articulate as any I have ever received from a city official. He spoke in a positive tone much stronger than the soft almost-whisper that he affects at committee hearings.

Mike Freedberg: What do you forsee in your relationship with the State Commissioner of Education, so that we don't encounter a state takeover, as happened at the Dever and Holland, of a school already implementing your turn-around measures?

John McDonough: Hopefully we will never have a school — a district — at level 5 again. They had looked at the data that led to concluding that these schools were not improving fast enough. The whole district is focused now so that it never happens again. I’ve had conversations with the Commissioner [regarding schools on the verge]. The benefit to us was that it put us in a stronger position going forward.

We have new capacity, part of the budget this year [that] has allowed us to intervene. We’ve done so at the Curtis Guild School in East Boston, and that school is now ready to be excellent. Also the Mildred Avenue School [in Mattapan], and recently we announced an intervention at Madison Park High School.

MF: The Madison Park High School intervention was mentioned in this week’s Boston Globe editorial calling for McDonough to be given the permanent assignment as superintendent. What particularly interested me was the assertion that the Madison Park initiative had the full cooperation of the Boston Teachers Union. This was news. The teachers union has clung to its own agenda for school betterment even though school improvement is “difficult” [as McDonough has said] and needs all hands on board. So I asked the question :

Is the Globe right in saying that you and the teachers union are on the same page with your autonomy reforms especially?

JM: I do agree. Richard [Stutkman, the union president] and I have a long-standing relationship. [And] it’s not productive over the long term for us not to cooperate. It’s in the contract [too]. Our conversations are always productive. I am sure that Richard might have appreciated a different approach, but … The other part is that strong Site Council and Personnel Committee is needed [to make principal autonomy really work]. We have a long way to go.

Ultimately we are working for the same result that all of us want to ame sure of : what is the STUDENT interest in all of this?

MF: Some to whom I have talked say that a big obstacle to school success is the backwardness of the system’s technology — and its inefficient costs. So I asked the question:

What steps are you taking to bring the district’s technology up to date and efficient ?

JM: We’ve made a great deal of investment: upgrading our infrastructure and wireless access in our schools; $1 million so that every teacher has a laptop; added $2 million to upgrade interface and make access equitable; $1.8 million from the capital budget.

And we are working with the mayor, to see how we can partner with Ed/Tech partners — what does the next generation of schools look like? Student access [especially].

MF: Finally, McDonough responds to my final question: what is the biggest problem Boston schools face going forward?

JM: We spend too much time on negativity, on 'Who does it better?' How do we reshape the discussion?