To say that Bostonians were somewhat optimistic when Robert Wood agreed to run their troubled public school system two summers ago is like saying their colonial forebears had little confidence in Paul Revere's signals.
Wood loomed as the kind of superstar cities dream of to check festering problems. As the former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, former president of the University of Massachusetts and former director of the Harvard-M.I.T. Joint Center for Urban Studies, he came equipped with dazzling credentials and a host of local and national political connections.
Unfortunately, the problems of the nation's oldest public school system were equally impressive. Wracked by desegregation-related violence and white flight, its enrollment had declined from an estimated 90,000 students to 65,000 in five years. Nearly half its students came from families on public assistance. Reading achievement scores and college acceptances were far below national norms.
To complicate matters further, the system had become a majority black and Hispanic in a city where voters controlling the pursestrings are predominantly white.
This month, as schools opened here, the most dramatic change in the Boston school system was the absence of Wood. The school superintendent was back at his summer home near Newport, R.I., having been abruptly fired by the city's elected School Committee, which cited an $18 million budget deficit and "inadequate leadership," as reasons for his abrupt termination.
His replacement by a 30-year veteran of the school system came just two weeks before the start of the new fall term and only halfway through the four years Wood said he needed to turn the school system around.
Today, educators here and across the nation are trying to piece together what happened to the promise of two years ago and are looking for lessons for other cities with similarly troubled school systems.
The post-mortem on Boston school reform runs the gamut from the belief that Wood was on the right track until he was done in by old-timers resistant to change, to the feeling that it was he who muffed a unique opportunity. Underlying both points of view is the question of whether any administrator -- superstar or not -- can turn around a contemporary urban school system.
There is little disagreement, though, that Wood pointed Boston's schools in different directions. He had shipped 130 administrators out of the system's central office back to district schools. He had used his extensive contacts in the city's business community to recruit executives to help chart a curriculum for a massive new vocational high school.
And Wood gave the school system the appearance of a contemporary bureaucracy, by computerizing personnel records and hiring publicists to begin the job of luring students away from private and parochial schools.
In the view of Wood and much of the press here, the beginning of the end came last fall, when the city chose a new School Committee to replace the one which had hired Wood. With two of the reform superintendent's champions on the five-member body departing, a new board less sympathetic to the school chief was chosen in a low turnout election.
Among the Wood antagonists elected last fall was Elvira (Pixie) Palladino, a street-market antibusing activist who used her position to block as many of Wood's efforts as she could. She routinely asked for delays in paying bills -- particularly for bus contracts -- and refused to vote for any proposals requiring federal funds, on grounds such money abets the "social engineering" of desegregation.
Shortly before Wood's ouster, Palladino wrote in an antibusing newspaper, "I'm mad at every black who owns a three-piece suit and thinks that suit entitles him to a job."
With enemies like Palladino, Wood has been cast as a martyr by the city's liberal establishment. The Boston Globe wrote that "a man on a first-name basis with many of the nation's most influential leaders was brought down by three local politicians whose public lives have been circumscribed by the boundaries of Boston."
The School Committee, the Globe editorialized, "was apparently determined to regain control of the extensive patronage system under which the schools historically functioned."
There is, however, another side to the story. Within the school system, Wood's support even among those with unquestioned reform credentials had begun to fall away in the months before his firing. A group of top aides began to depart last spring.
"I think Wood wasted a golden opportunity for change," says one younger teacher in the city's Roxbury ghetto.
The complaints of such former allies include the charge that the one-time Cabinet secretary was used to dealing only at high levels. Says one Wood aide: "When you're in Washington, you're much more insulated. You don't have to deal with parent groups sitting-in at your office. I don't think he was ever comfortable with those kinds of situations and he offended some people."
Teachers complain, too, that Wood, as an administrator, not an educator, was overly concerned with establishing control at top levels of the system, rather than concentrating on classroom improvements.
Wood never did meet his goal of establishing a systemwide curriculum. Complains the Roxbury teacher: "There's no grade by grade sequence here. One teacher may omit geometry because he doesn't like it."
Some of Wood's appointees appeared incompetent. One Wood aide became involved in an mini-scandal by reporting dramatic improvement in reading achievement without noting that the sample of students tested had been altered.
For his part, Wood casts most criticism as sour grapes by an "old guard" he had forced from power. "We were busting up an old network," he asserts.
But some of Wood's supporters-turned-critics believe that had he been more diplomatic in dealing with the system's old guard and more effective at the classroom level, he could have made himself "unfirable." They believe other school systems looking for change should focus on a superintendent's experience, not his credentials.
"I think in order to change the schools," said one teacher, "you either need an insider who wants to shake things up or an outsider who's willing to do the work to find out what's needed. But they have to know education."
Other Wood loyatists remain convinced, however, that the formula which led to Wood's hiring -- that of the well-connected administrator who would hire talented people -- could work, but that changes in the financing of public education must come first.
"You can't have a system for the poor and black financed by whites who don't use it," says Marya Levenson, a former Wood aide now at the Harvard School of Education. Indeed Wood antagonist Palladino seemed to underscore such sentiments when she commented after Wood's ouster. "The taxpayers of this city can no long support the kind of system the superintendent envisioned."
In the weeks following Wood's departure, the financial problems of Boston's schools have, in fact, become worse, and their enrollment dropped 2,000 below last year.
And for Robert Wood, he has returned whence he came -- to the faculty of Harvard.