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Paymon Rouhanifard on Boston, Tribalism and the Dangers of COVID ‘Groupthink’

In 74 Interview, the Massachusetts state board member explains why he’s challenging the status quo on issues from mask mandates to declining schools

Courtesy of Paymon Rouhanifard

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See previous 74 Interviews: Jonathan Chait on school choice, Andrew Rotherham on the Virginia governor’s race, and Arizona assistant principal Beth Lehr on the pandemic’s effect on teachers. The full archive is here. 

When Paymon Rouhanifard accepted a seat on the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education three years ago, he thought of it as a “sleepy, wonky” body that didn’t capture many headlines. 

But for the former superintendent of the Camden City School District — who wanted to step away from the public arena after five years leading a district under state control — the post has been far from quiet. The pandemic thrust the state board into the forefront of tricky decisions on school reopening and COVID mitigation measures. 

“Lo and behold, we were in the middle of this whole thing,” he said. 

Rouhanifard was inspired to go into education by the example of his immigrant parents, who fled religious persecution in Iran to come to the U.S. He earned a degree in economics and political science from the University of North Carolina before he joined Teach for America and taught sixth grade in the New York City Public Schools.

After a stint at Goldman Sachs, he held top spots in the New York City and Newark school districts before former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appointed him superintendent in Camden. At the time, it was one of the lowest-performing districts in the state, with declining enrollment and crumbling facilities.

Paymon Rouhanifard was appointed superintendent of the Camden district after holding top posts in the New York City and Newark districts. (Camden City School District)

Rouhanifard oversaw the implementation of “renaissance schools.” Unlike charters that might lure families away from the district, the model involved nonprofit charter operators that had to take over existing neighborhood schools and show improvement. The results were mixed. Critics derisively dismissed him as a reformer, but others found him accessible and skilled at navigating the politics of urban school districts.

His post on the Massachusetts state board has further cemented his reputation as an iconoclast.

Rouhanifard cast the lone dissenting vote last fall when the board voted to start the school year with a statewide mask mandate, and he continues to call out local media for focusing on rising case counts instead of hospitalization rates, when vaccines have been available for over a year. 

And now, Rouhanifard once again finds himself at the center of a debate over a possible state takeover of a district in turmoil.

The state board is weighing potential receivership of Boston Public Schools following a scathing report of a special education department in “disarray,” ongoing disruptions in transportation and inaccurate data reporting.

“The district has failed to effectively serve its most vulnerable students, carry out basic operational functions, and address systemic barriers to providing an equitable, quality education,” the report said.

Aside from his role on the state board, Rouhanifard is founder and CEO of Propel America, a nonprofit that allows high school graduates to earn tuition-free college credit while employed in health care. 

In a wide-ranging interview, he discussed his current role, Boston’s crisis and the dangers of COVID “groupthink.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: There are some strong, opposing views on how to turn Boston schools around. How are the challenges there different from when you led Camden?

Paymon Rouhanifard: I was shocked by the fact that no one disagreed with the content of that report, a review of all that has plagued the Boston Public school system. The mayor herself said, “We’ve long been aware of these issues,” and those who came to push back on any potential intervention from the state said the same thing. 

In Camden, there was a similar report. The difference is that in Camden, there was political willingness at the local level to partner with the state. Different people have different views on whether that was the right thing to do. Was it always easy? Did everyone sing “Kumbaya” day in and day out? Absolutely not. 

Ultimately, Boston Public Schools is an institution, an organization of people serving young people and families that’s led by a superintendent. You would have thought that what we’re actually trying to solve is how the state commissioner of education and the mayor can find political allies and build a plan. That’s not what it is. They need a leader. They need a CEO, and we need to all give that person cover to do the really hard work of selecting and building curriculum, steeping teachers in it, improving facilities, righting all of the issues with the special education department.

You can’t do that without leadership. As long as there’s fighting at the political level within Boston and across the state, you will be guaranteed not to find a high-quality leader to come in and do that work. It’s just going to be the same revolving door with someone who’s going to get chewed up and spit out by warring factions.

So you can’t even discuss solutions until that division is resolved?

Exactly. I was lucky because the governor in New Jersey, the commissioner of education, the mayor and other senior political leaders in South Jersey agreed on the premise: We need radical change and we’re going to bring in someone to help us figure it out.

Do you think you could be the next superintendent in Boston?

No, no, no. Superintendent was the best job I ever had that I never want to have again. It seems sort of silly to rule something out a decade from now, but I don’t think I want to be a superintendent again. I feel grateful that I can play a small role on the state board of education here. The work at Propel is currently what matters most to me.

Talk about how Propel is different. With the pandemic causing students to rethink higher education, what have you learned about the transition after high school?

In Camden, we were incredibly proud of the progress that happened inside the four walls of the classroom — improved test scores, graduation rates, reduction in suspension rates and an increase in college-going rates. At the same time, I’ve had this dawning realization that our students have been floundering in life after high school. There’s been a commensurate spike in college stop-outs. Young people are making these decisions with very little support and face a false choice of either having to forestall income and accrue debt or having to forestall education and mobility to go take an entry-level job with limited opportunities for advancement.

Propel aims to create a third way. We call it jobs-first higher education. Young people from historically marginalized communities need a quicker path to economic stability, and traditional higher ed is the wrong fit for just that reason. Why can’t we just have the best of both worlds? Let’s get them into a decent paying job as soon as possible. In six months or less, and with no debt, they’ve got a legitimate amount of college credits in their back pocket if it’s something they want to pursue in the future. They can help grandma if something comes up or if a younger sibling needs them financially for support. These are the issues that ultimately have driven young people out of traditional higher ed.

What does it take to build that infrastructure, and do you see this model working in other industries as well, beyond health care? 

We would like to be in IT, advanced manufacturing. It can apply to all middle skill jobs. It requires employers to participate in this system. It requires higher education to build these credentialing opportunities that stack into … degrees. 

Community colleges, which were designed to be a workforce engine to address the needs of the labor market, have drifted away from that mission. They are mostly in the business of transferring students to traditional liberal arts college degrees, and the workforce side doesn’t interact with the academic side. We are the connective tissue that brings them together.

Is now the time to expand, with more students rethinking whether higher education is for them?

We feel much greater urgency for this work now that you see post-secondary enrollment down by double digit percentages. The good news is wages have gone up, but young people are going to be drawn to a job that requires zero training but pays $18-$19 bucks an hour. In the long run, that may not be in their best interest. That’s a headwind that we face in our own recruitment. A big part of our job is to make it very clear why college credits matter, how will it help them into the future. 

Are you seeing growth? 

We served 120 students last year and we’re close to 250 this year. We’re still a young nonprofit.

Back to your role on the state board, your views on COVID policies have tended to go against the grain when it comes to mask mandates, for example. How did you arrive at those positions? 

There has been a lot of groupthink in how policy decisions are made, and I thought it was particularly true as we were learning more about the pandemic. I, like most everyone else, took the pandemic very seriously. I was scrubbing my groceries, taking all the precautions, and I’m a triple vaccinated person. My eligible son is vaccinated. My daughter is 4. But as more information emerged, it just became increasingly clear to me that one’s position on COVID was reflective of their political ideology, and to me that’s problematic.

I strongly believe that public health has to be founded upon convincing all people of the benefits and the related drawbacks of specific measures. It can’t just be one specific ideology and the tribes that come to agree with you. You have to convince everyone, or at least the majority of people.

Or it’s not public health?

It’s not public health. It’s tribal public health. I started to feel that divergence. There was so much information, particularly in schools in the South that had long been open, many without mask mandates. We could study them and better understand what we should have been doing in blue states like Massachusetts. School reopening was … a far bigger issue … than masking ever was. I’m frankly more disillusioned by the inanity of the masking debate. 

It was in the fall of 2020 that I began to be a bit more vocal about: “What are the off ramps?” “How do we open up schools?” And several months later, “How do we think about removing the mask mandate and making that a local decision?” I saw armies of parents who were feeling the same way, many of whom are left-of-center, as I am. 

This is one of those things where you want to gloat about being right. But many people have come around on this issue and have acknowledged that we should have opened up schools sooner. We’re now dealing with the ramifications of school closures as it relates to young people’s mental health — above and beyond even the learning loss. I lived it firsthand as a parent. My then 5-year-old was really going through it, and he’s a very social kid. That, frankly, was as big a reason for my advocacy as anything.

If you were still a superintendent, do you think you would have taken the same positions? 

I do. The mandates can’t come at a state level. I could have [given] a commissioner of education, a state board of education some cover, to show it is possible at the local level. 

I don’t mind saying this on the record. I was just hurt by the lack of district leadership in the Commonwealth. They were at times silent, at times really on the other side of school reopening. At the crux of it, there was nary a discussion about trade-offs. All public policy is about trade-offs. When you’re focused on one variable, you’re a researcher or you’re an advocate — you’re not a policymaker. 

We’re either trying to get COVID to zero and implement every intervention under the sun, or we’re like Ron DeSantis and openly shouting at people who want to wear a mask. It’s about trade-offs. What are the benefits and drawbacks at this moment in time, given the information we know? It’s about acknowledging what we thought was true a month ago may not be true today, and to say that out loud. Tell your constituents, “I was wrong a month ago. New information has emerged. Here’s where we’re going.” 

It was hard for anybody to say that?

Yeah, because there are political consequences. Decision-making got sucked into the vortex of politics. 

What are your thoughts on the role the media has played in covering the pandemic? Can you point to examples that you think have been helpful and not helpful?

There has been legitimate uncertainty, and that drives a certain set of decisions. It’s not that I think there are these culpable parties who failed us as a country. It’s just that as the pandemic evolved with new information, we failed to act on that information in ways that were beneficial to our constituents. If there is a culprit, I would say local media and to a lesser extent, national media.

It’s a trite thing to say but anxiety-inducing headlines generate clicks. The business side of the media and the journalists haven’t always been aligned. I think Donald Trump in a way put a lot of fuel back into The New York Times and other media publications, but so did COVID. I always imagine the business side [saying], “Can you guys please write about something other than whatever the topic is that doesn’t generate clicks.” And then Trump happened and COVID happened, and they’re like, “Keep writing more of that. Now we’re on the same page.” 

It’s in the Boston Globe’s financial interest to write a story in May of 2022 about case counts surging, having quotes like, “This is only the tip of the iceberg,” and saying hospitalization rates are also surging. When you look at the curve, it’s a small bump, often near-nadir. People respond to that and it does us no favors. 

A surge now doesn’t mean what a surge did in 2020? 

Exactly, because the vaccine has been available for over a year and we’re going to be living with COVID the rest of our lives. By focusing on case counts, we lost the plot altogether because the initial focus was on flattening the curve — the curve being the hospitalization rates. There has been very little curiosity from the press, both regional and national, on what is happening inside of hospitals. There’s a lot of grayness in the data, and one has to actually be thoughtful and nuanced in representing it.

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