The Platitudes of Diane Ravitch

Posted Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Afya PCS students gathered outside of Baltimore City Hall.
Afya PCS students gathered outside of Baltimore City Hall.

Diane Ravitch has a new essay in the New Republic blaming Democrats for Betsy Devos, the new education secretary appointed by President Trump. She makes a few good points and several that are either not relevant for Baltimore or, sadly, utterly inadequate given the challenges we face.

Attacking Betsy DeVos is a perfectly sensible thing to do. DeVos, an ideologue, is uninformed and hyper-partisan. Comparing people who have misgivings about school choice to flat-earthers, as Devos did recently, is vacuous and anti-intellectual. Suggesting that historically black colleges were pioneers of school choice, something else she did recently, is a staggeringly ignorant white-washing of U.S. history, a history full of examples of African Americans being denied access to education. Black colleges arose as a necessity—because there was no choice, no educational option. 

Ravitch is also right about the grip that testing has on our educational culture. I’ll write about this more over the summer, when I continue my series about building a better school system, but the truth is that even as fewer and fewer people believe in the merits of excessive standardized testing, we continue to do it at an alarming rate. Now, it seems, we are testing for testing’s sake. We have, over the past 25 years, created an educational/industrial complex that is built on standardized testing and overflowing with data. Right now, in Maryland, this complex remains in control. The Protect Our Schools Act, recently passed by the General Assembly, begins to grapple with this reality, but it’s such a messy piece of legislation that it’s more about being anti-Trump and anti-Devos than it is about being pro quality public education. Testing can play an important role in education. In fact, we do need to be able to assess whether students are progressing and what areas students either excel in or need assistance with. The truth remains, however, that we’ve not been able to effectively figure out how to use the testing as a true instructional tool. It remains much more a political tool.

So when it comes to DeVos, Ravitch is right and when it comes to testing she is mostly right. But she’s wrong about three big things. First, by linking charters to privatization she ignores the fact that many, perhaps even most, charter operators around the country, including all of them in Maryland (by law), are not run by corporations and have no interest in privatization. Baltimore’s charter school operators are local people who have created or are a part of local non-profit organizations, to try and address the incredible challenges of providing a decent education to the students and families of Baltimore City.

Second, Ravitch suggests that simply switching agenda solves problems. Switching is precisely the problem that I’ve been talking about throughout this blog. Baltimore City switches agenda all the time, starting and stopping one initiative after another on a four-or-five-year cycle. The school system and the school board committed to charter schools. No charter school here now, in Baltimore City, would exist without the recommendation of a CEO and the approval of the board. Abandoning the charter sector, or undermining or destabilizing it with poor policy, would be incredibly detrimental to the city. We need a policy and an approach that builds from the strengths that we have and is sustainable. We need a policy and an approach that understands that there are many different kinds of public schools.

Third, Ravitch is terribly weak on what to do next. “There is,” she claims, “already an education agenda that is good for children, good for educators, good for the nation, and good for the Democratic Party. It’s called good public schools for everyone. All Democrats have to do is to rediscover it.”

I’ve been working and living in Baltimore City for 26 years now. I’d like to know when this agenda Ravitch is referring to actually worked. This is nostalgia, pure and simply. Democrats rightly attacked Trump for saying he wanted to make America great again. Democrats said two things about this, rightly I believe. First, America is pretty great now, warts and all. And, second, Trump’s notion of when America was great was actually only pretty great for white people, white men specifically.

Ravitch’s quest to rediscover something that was never there is MAGA for liberals. What our city needs is a significantly more pragmatic approach that blends the best of the practices we know work and discards aspects that fail our students. We need to chart a consistent course that avoids platitudes and ideology, understands the assets we have, builds from our strengths, and includes a long-term commitment to public education, in all its varied shapes and sizes. This work will require creativity and determination. We can, of course, learn from the past as we build a better future, a better school system, but this journey is about discovery, about forging something new and better. Nostalgia has no part in it. 


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Full Measure

Posted Friday, May 05, 2017

Katie Marts Eichman in her classroom in 2008.
Katie Marts Eichman in her classroom in 2008.

Since coming back from spring break, I’ve been working at one of my schools, Afya PCS, full time. The principal there, Katie Eichman, has taken leave to be at home with her son, who is struggling with a serious heart condition. Katie has been with Afya from the very beginning, 2007. Prior to that she worked with me when I was the principal at Waverly. Katie is a remarkable educator. I remember well the first time that I met her. We had coffee in Federal Hill in late spring, 2003. I was recruiting teachers and heard she was promising. She was a nervous wreck, actually. Her hands were shaking as if in a shiver. I remember that. But I also remember that she wrote every last word down in her little notebook. She’d ask a question and take notes in this cramped, tight little handwriting. Everything was neat and organized. She was intense. On the spot, I knew I’d hire her. My two favorite teacher characteristics are intensity and organization: Katie had both.

All these years later, she’s taking some time to be with her little boy. I’ll be working at Afya for the rest of the school year. I’m intentionally working without a title. Students ask me if I’m the principal or if I will be the new principal. I’m cagey. Being a principal of a school is all-encompassing. It requires total effort. I’m giving a lot to Afya, for sure. But I can’t give everything. Not now. Not at this point in my career. Not given my other work. And so I can’t take a title. I’m just here, at the school, doing my best to help everyone work out the year in the best possible way. Because of this, I have little spare time to think and to write. Principals rarely do. Most good principals are workers: they are in perpetual motion—working, working, working. When I’m in this mode, title or no title, I find it very hard to write much more than a few paragraphs, let alone a blog. And so, I need to take an extended break from writing, until school is over. That's when the third part of the series I've been writing, Clear, Build, Hold: A Plan for Improving Baltimore City’s Public School System in 25 Short Years, will be published.

Prior to that, I’ll make one more posting, announcing some things we have done or will do to celebrate Katie’s service to our schools and our students. —Will 


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Clear, Build, Hold: The Second in a Four-Part Series

Posted Thursday, April 06, 2017

Will McKenna with his father, Bill McKenna, on picture day for the Francis Scott Key Eagles.
Will McKenna with his father, Bill McKenna, on picture day for the Francis Scott Key Eagles.

A Plan for Improving Baltimore City’s Public School System in 25 Short Years

The First in a Four-Part Series: Introduction



I’ve got public education in my bones. My grandmother was a teacher. My mom was a teacher. My sister is a teacher. My wife is a teacher. My dad, pictured here with me, coached and worked as an athletic director for 36 years. My most vivid memories of childhood include going to my dad’s school on snow days to play basketball and volleyball with my sisters. Snow meant no school! And yet we went to school anyway, and had the place to ourselves.

I taught for nine years here in Baltimore City. Inspired by those experiences, and the positive memories of a great principal that my dad worked for, a man by the name of Lou Beard, I wanted to lead a school. I got my chance at Waverly Elementary School in 2001. My work there was the foundational experience of my career. I still had education in my bones, but I borrowed extensively from Thomas Sergiovanni, who talks about leadership coming from the hand, the heart and the mind, to develop and implement an educational philosophy that was all-encompassing. I led with everything that I had.

I loved Waverly. There, I led and learned from an amazing group of educators, many of whom are still teaching and leading schools today. One of them, Obi Okobi, a joyous, humane, dynamic educator, died—so suddenly, so shockingly, so unfairly—just the other day.

I think of Obi, I think of Waverly: I think of Waverly, I smile.

Here’s what Waverly taught me: The two most important things in creating schools are money and autonomy. A school certainly needs to be grounded, intellectually and morally, in a strong instructional belief system, which I’ll speak to in later posts, but without money and autonomy it’s hard to start anything and harder to sustain it. 

I think of autonomy as space, the room to do the work of teaching and learning and building a school community. Clearing and creating the space to work is essential to our school system’s future. First, a few words about money.

Schools need to have money to be successful. It’s as simple as that. Getting money, and more of it, directly to the schools, is the complicated part. And then, once the resources are there, at the school, spending and investing in ways that sustain and build the school community in positive ways is also an enormous and complex endeavor. But ample money is a must.

I’ve had some money in my career. I did my principal internship at a large, and exceptionally well-managed, elementary school near the Pimlico Racetrack. I was there in 2000. The school was led by a wonderful principal, James Smith, who knew how to work the system, work the bureaucracy, to garner resources for his community. I remember sitting in meetings, on late Friday afternoons, and thinking hard about how to effectively spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an extended day program. It was a good feeling to have ideas and have the money to make an impact.

Waverly was part of a network of struggling schools, created by Carmen Russo, the CEO at the time. Russo gave special attention to these schools, providing each of them with a pathway to additional resources and the space and autonomy to work. In the early years of this initiative my fellow principals and I had what we needed to succeed. Most of our schools were very successful. A few of them—Waverly, William Paca, Bay Brook—represent some of the best examples of school improvement in this city in the last 30 years.

I’ve also had little to no money. My last year at Waverly was 2006. The school system was facing down a fiscal crisis and my discretionary budget, after staffing (which was severely cut), for 650 students was about $52,000. That’s a little more than $74 a child for everything from paper to buses for trips to curriculum and professional development. Peanuts.

Running that school that year was one of the most challenging experiences of my professional career. There were multiple factors in play. The school expanded from an elementary to a dual-facility elementary/middle school. The buildings were two blocks from one another. I did a lot of walking, miles and miles a day. Both buildings were falling apart. The exterior doors in the elementary school would only securely close with padlocks. The custodial services were essentially non-existent. Many mornings, I mopped the floors myself. I also had three children under the age of five, one of which thought crying was an essential life skill.

My bones got worn out from these things alone. Not having money, especially after having some, made it a lot worse.  It was my experience at Waverly that inspired me to start charter schools. Aside from money, this CEO’s district had something else: incredible leadership. Atop our network of schools was a duo of administrators who were clear-headed, determined, and fully committed to fighting back the bureaucracy. One gentleman, a round little man with big eyeglasses and a bigger heart, just wouldn’t take no for an answer. The system would say this can’t be done. He’d say yes it can. The bureaucracy would layer over a problem with red tape. He’d hack it away. The system would build brick walls. He’d shovel under them. His name was Dale Johnson. I’m not sure if Dale knew a blessed thing about instruction. But he did know what schools needed to be successful. He got done what needed to be done.

Our leaders, Dale Johnson and Cynthia Janssen, cleared the space so schools could work. Inside of this space, competent, professional, passionate principals and teachers could thrive. Waverly lost a lot of resources in my fourth and fifth year there. The school system nearly went bankrupt. Dale and Cynthia both moved to Florida to work in a school district there. Losing them was as debilitating as losing money.

I vowed, after that experience, that I would never let what was properly started fail because of the encroaching or ever changing bureaucracy. I learned that running successful schools required space and autonomy.

In the past several years the fight for money has consumed us. We rally. We organize. We fight. Money has nearly become our sole focus. This effort is not nearly enough. Our city needs to further mobilize to demand that money is well invested. The single best way to do this is to prioritize school- and community-based autonomy over centralization. This needs to be the standard for all schools, charter and traditional, and all communities. The current divisiveness between charters and traditional schools lies in the fact that charters get more direct funding. The entire premise of all funding determinations going forward must be that all schools get as much direct funding as possible. Charters and traditional schools will still experience funding in different ways, but the tension can be decreased if these differences are better understood and if more direct funding goes to traditional schools.

Some might say the school system has been doing this. Don’t believe it. Here’s how centralization works in the most pernicious of ways. A few years ago, leadership decided that all schools should have PE teachers and art teachers. Who can argue with that? So the district set aside millions of dollars to support this initiative. In essence the arts and physical education became a centralized service—the school system allocated positions to schools. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily—in schools that work. In the many that don’t, these allocations rarely turned into quality teachers who could make a difference. Too often they remained vacant. I said at the time, and say again, this approach to providing service to schools is just plain deficient. The central office can placate advocates by saying it “hears” the need for more arts, for more PE. But the implementation is so poor, so inefficient, that the effort is, in far too many cases, wasteful. Interestingly, these vacant positions sit there, on the books, until the school year, when they are swept up by the district in what is then called a cost savings.

Dr. Alonso made autonomy and school-based decision-making the central theme of his theory of action back in 2007. Over the years, we’ve moved farther and farther away from it, and we made key policy decisions to undermine our efforts. These efforts include the centralization of art and physical education described above. They also include the 2010 teacher contract, which began with promise and devolved into a bureaucratic and centralized mess. Successful implementation of that contract required management expertise at all levels of the school system and a commitment to high standards. We have not been up to the challenge.

At this time, our school district has no unifying theme beyond the rally for more money. This has to change. Immediately. We need to return to the belief that the institutional and personnel power base in our school system is and belongs in our schools. Unlike last time, when we started with this belief in powerful and creative ways, but abandoned it all too quickly, we need to start with this belief and sustain it, even as we come to the very challenging implications of this belief system.

When good schools have autonomy they become powerful epicenters of communities.  Autonomy comes in a number of shapes and forms. Charter schools have autonomy by law. Some traditional schools have more autonomy because they have a strong principal or a strong neighborhood or a strong tradition. Other traditional schools have autonomies because they got a boost from federal/state intervention programs. In the past, we gave more autonomy to networks of schools, like the CEO’s district in the early 2000s. There are many ways to provide schools with the autonomies they need. Next time I’ll talk more about building schools and communities based on the promise of autonomy and I’ll talk further about what autonomy means and what autonomies are essential.

This time, I have but one more point:

Giving schools autonomy and therefore power does create problems, a lot of them. I don’t dispute that. I argue, rather, that problems in urban school systems are inevitable. We are better off, however, building and investing in schools and communities, even if we can only do it very slowly and over a long period of time, rather than investing in a centralize bureaucracy and belief system. Centralization can perhaps control things better, but centralization will never be the key to building and sustaining anything of substance. I believe it’s possible to slowly build, over the next 25 years, a school system that truly values individual schools and communities. I know that if we try and centralize and control things, even if we get a lot more money, will still face, 50 years from now, the same problems that cripple us today. 

Tags: ABI , Afya Baltimore Inc. , afya public charter school , Baltimore City Public Schools , brehms lane public charter school , tunbridge public charter school

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Clear, Build, Hold: A Plan for Improving Baltimore City’s Public School System in 25 Short Years

Posted Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Brehms Lane PCS principal, Diya Hafiz, tends to her work, protecting the goal and helping to revitalize the school.
Brehms Lane PCS principal, Diya Hafiz, tends to her work, protecting the goal and helping to revitalize the school.

The first of a four-part series


After toppling the government of Saddam Hussein in 2003, American military leaders and diplomats were unprepared for what came next. Over time, the military learned from experience. Raw displays of power—“shock and awe”—gave way to a more nuanced strategy known as “clear, hold, and build.” This latter approach had some success but ultimately failed because Iraqi and US leaders were not able to consolidate gains won on the battlefield into sustainable political outcomes.

War is destructive. Education is constructive. Still, there is much to learn from our experiences in Iraq and apply to education here in Baltimore City.

Over the past 25 years, Baltimore City has tried a number of educational reforms to improve the school system. We began this century by focusing on curriculum, adopting Open Court across all elementary schools. We also retained students who weren’t on grade level and required that they attend summer school. Both of these initiatives seemed so obvious at the time. Baltimore City Schools had gone years without a coherent reading curriculum. The school system also had a history of promoting students who were well below grade level. By standardizing the curriculum and setting high standards, the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners brought a sense of unity and purpose to the district as a whole. Both of these initiatives eventually brought new sets of problems. But they were both good starts.

There were other initiatives: We created elementary/middle schools. We started a lot of Innovation High Schools, and charter schools, and transformation schools. We also began a new teacher contract and a bold plan for building new schools and renovating old ones.

We’ve tried a lot of things. Some of them were quite successful initially. Too few of these initiatives have been sustained. Baltimore Renaissance Academy (BRA) is an example of this. The school was opened in 2005 as part of the small-schools movement, a trend that began in NYC and was adopted in Baltimore by Carmen Russo, the CEO here from 2000 to 2003, with a particular focus on high schools. The idea for this particular school was to replicate the work of Noble Street Charter School, in Chicago, here in Baltimore. BRA was not a charter school, though it did have an operator (a non-profit out of NY) to provide additional supports and oversight. Then, as now, the school shared space with Booker T. Washington Middle School. In 2006 I spent two days visiting BRA. It was clear that there was continuity to the work. There was a sense of purpose and strong leadership was in place. Karl Perry was the principal. His demeanor was quiet but he was strong and confident. It wasn’t perfect. What school is? Especially one in a really challenging neighborhood. But the fabric of the place, the mission, was knit tight and the students and teachers worked with a sense of commitment and purpose.

Over time the operator left, principals came and went, the original vision for the school faded. Taking absolutely nothing away from the people who are working at the school today, BRA is a shell of what it was originally intended to be. How does this happen? Money, and the lack of enough of it, is one reason for this. Another is that the school system itself was never fully committed to the implementation of any of the Innovation High Schools. It liked the idea of them, but was never really willing to commit to essential autonomies so these schools could build strong and lasting foundations. A final problem was that our CEOs just don’t stay very long. Carmen Russo lasted three years. Dr. Alonso promised he would stay for ten years and left after six. Dr. Thornton declared the school system was on the threshold of greatness; 18 months later he was gone.

The ebbs and flows of leadership, and the varying initiatives we’ve tried, mean that we, as a city, as a school system, have failed to consolidate our gains. The churn of change prevents a sense of forward momentum. There’s nothing linear about our work. Too often we’re going around and around. Very often these are circles of confusion and disorder. A school like Baltimore Renaissance Academy was constructed on a theory—the idea that small schools, especially in the middle grades and high school, were important. Smaller schools helped teachers and principals create a sense of place, of community. With an operator in place, structures of support could be provided. Over time, the school would/could become an anchor in its community. That was the idea, then. Now we’re back to believing we need bigger schools, an idea straight from the 1970s. The current argument is that small schools cost more and are less efficient. Larger schools, we are telling ourselves, have more scale and can therefore offer more services and resources. The beliefs behind BRA are fading. Sadly, the school seems outdated and faces closure annually.

This is a problem. If what was right just ten or so years ago is wrong now it either wasn’t really right a decade ago, and shouldn’t have been implemented, or it isn’t really wrong now. My sense of this is that our best ideas of ten or 15 years ago are still very good ideas. But they were never fully implemented, or they were implemented without thorough and complete planning. They certainly were never sustained. We haven’t held on to them. Our commitment to these ideas changed in the face of new leadership or different trends. This is what has to change if our school system is to improve. 

What we need is a true long term plan for improvement, grounded in neighborhood and community development. The military strategy of “clear, hold, and build” offers foundational language for this work, with some re-ordering and adding. First, I believe, we need to clear and create space so the work can happen. Then we need to build. This means we need to build from the ground up, or build from what's already working. Finally, and most challenging, we need to focus resources on holding and sustaining our gains for decades at a time. 

In the coming weeks—I will take a week off for spring break!—I’ll talk through this work in three additional posts. Next time: Clearing and creating the space so schools can grow and thrive—one community, one school, at a time. 

Tags: ABI , Afya Baltimore Inc. , afya public charter school , Baltimore City Public Schools , brehms lane public charter school , tunbridge public charter school

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The Mayor and Public Charter Schools

Posted Friday, March 17, 2017

Baltimore City's Mayor Catherine Pugh.
Baltimore City's Mayor Catherine Pugh.

Mayor Pugh has been talking a lot about charter schools lately. This isn’t a bad thing. I’ve been arguing for a while now that we need conversations about charter schools in Baltimore City that are less political and more practical. Having the Mayor’s voice as part of the conversation is critically important. She’s said some things that are close to correct, some things that are close to wrong, and some things that are confusing and ultimately create divisions. In today’s post, which is longer than usual, I’ll try and make sense of things.

Mayor Pugh began publicly talking about charter schools last winter. During an interview on Maryland Morning, Tom Hall mistakenly referred to the Baltimore Design School as a charter school. She tersely interrupted Hall, at the 12:32 mark, to say the Design School “is not a charter school, it’s a public school.”

She is correct: the Baltimore Design School is a public school. It was created through a partnership with City Schools. The school system has a long history of creating schools in partnership with local organizations, be they universities or nonprofits. New Song Academy and The Stadium School are two such schools, both of which started in the 1990s as part of the New Schools Initiative. Johns Hopkins University has partnered with the school system on numerous initiatives. So has Civic Works.

All of these schools have different governing structures and missions. They are all public schools. Perhaps the most innovative work related to the Design School was the facility, which is quite impressive. The school system worked closely with Ms. Pugh and her fellow founders to finance the renovation of a dilapidated building just south of North Ave. Interestingly, the debt service related to the project (see page 110 in the linked PDF), $1.7 million annually, is part of the overall debt service the school system now carries. So while the Mayor is correct to say, in the same interview, that the she worked to help “build the first new school in the city in 30 years” it did come with a cost. And that cost, most interestingly, is shared by all schools across the city, including charter schools, which pay a portion of the city’s debt service as part of the charter funding formula. Of further interest, many of these charter schools do this even as they pay for their own debt service related to acquisition and renovations of their own non-public facilities.

All of the schools listed above represent different approaches to education in Baltimore City. All of them are public schools. Charter schools similarly represent a different approach. They, too, are public schools. The Mayor should know this. To separate public charter schools from other public schools, be they traditional or neighborhood schools, schools with entry-based criteria, or contract schools such as the Baltimore Design School or The Bard School, is to blur or conflate or divide the educational landscape in the city. It’s unclear why she chooses to do this.

More recently, the Mayor has had more to say about charters. The Baltimore Sun reported on March 9th that the mayor believes the school system needs to re-examine its structural costs, including funding for a large network of public charter schools.

It’s hard to infer exactly what the Mayor means by this comment. Broadly speaking, Mayor Pugh is right: the school system does in fact need to re-examine its structural costs. It’s unclear what the reference to funding for charter schools means. Is she saying the funding formula needs to be revisited? Is she saying the network of charters is too large? We can’t really tell.

In her State of the City address, given yesterday, Mayor Pugh continued to talk about charter schools. Below is exactly what she said, quoted from the transcript, with specific comments and questions following each statement.

"Our school system has been faced with closing low populated public schools while charter public schools have grown to over 30, more than in the entire state - and even though public charter schools receive more per pupil allocations - they too face funding challenges."

My first issue with this statement is that it’s terribly passive. Every single public charter school that has been opened or closed in Baltimore City over the last decade-plus has done so with the recommendation of the CEO and the approval of the school board. We have closed “low populated” traditional public schools. We have also closed public charter schools. Charter schools aren’t this amoeba-like thing that have dropped down from the sky. Yes, there is a charter school law which requires school districts to accept and review applications. School boards remain the authorizer, however. And in nearly all jurisdictions around the state, school boards have figured out ways to either have no charter schools at all or very few of them.

Our school board could have taken the same approach. They have chosen not to for a very simple reason: Our school system has struggled for decades now. Funding is a part of this. Poverty is a part of this. Crime is a part of this. Leadership is a part of this. There are a dozen different reasons for the struggles. Most of them, perhaps even all of them, are completely valid. The point is that the school board, the school system, previous mayors, and communities around the city all recognize this. And we are all striving to confront these realities and respond to them. With respect to these challenges, the school system has attempted to do any number of things. They’ve championed school choice. They championed small schools. They championed community partnerships that have led to contracts to run schools, which is what the Design School has. The school system has also, at times, intentionally sought to use charter schools to strategically address challenges. Why all of this work? Because the city is struggling to deal with very real issues. In the face of this there are really no easy answers. Charter schools are here now, in part, in response to these issues. They are here because they are needed.

On the Mayor’s final point, about the funding, she is right: charter schools do in fact receive more direct funding, which she refers to as the per pupil. That’s part of the agreement that charters have with the school system. And despite this, charter schools, public charter schools, are also facing funding challenges.

As I’ve said previously, this budget crisis has deeply affected all schools in the city. Some get a punch in the gut. Some get a hit in the head. Some could potentially be crippled. It’s a pick-your-poison scenario. We’re all facing it.

"What is the difference between the School for the Arts, Green Street Academy, City Neighbors and the Baltimore Design School from other schools in Baltimore? I can tell you; these schools have a Board of Directors made up of concerned citizens who believe in quality education and are willing to provide resources through fundraising and private donations to assure those students have the very best tools, teachers and learning experiences to contribute to their students’ success.  Public Private Partnerships are essential to the success of our city and to the success of our children. Every school in Baltimore should have a Board of Directors who care about the future of our children and are willing to give of their time, talent and resources.  I challenge the citizens of Baltimore to provide that same support for every school in Baltimore.  Those who have and will accept this challenge are the leaders that should serve on our school board because they believe in the possibilities of our students."

The Mayor, here, points to one difference between the schools she mentioned and traditional or neighborhood schools. She’s right, certain schools in the city have boards. And schools like City and Poly also have very strong alum groups which provide supports. Other schools around the city have strong parent organizations.

Here’s the deal, however: things like boards, and alum groups, and family councils or school improvement teams—all of these groups can provide useful and important structures to support schools. But they are, ultimately, just organizing structures and organization structures have the potential to do good and they have the potential to bury schools in red tape. Remember that City Schools already has a board, The Baltimore City Board of Commissioners. If all schools around the city also have boards, there may end up being a lot of competing interests. Boards can be supportive but they tend to also want power and control. 

Ultimately, what I’m saying here is that as far as school reforms go, mandating or requiring that schools have boards is a possible place to start but it won’t get the school system very far, even if implemented well, and it is fraught with potential downsides. Successful schools, in other words, may or may not have boards, but they all share other, more important, characteristics, including great leadership, committed and smart teachers, and a sense of collective purpose.

"The dilemma for the school system is that they must determine how, with the growth of charter public schools they manage, layoff or absorb teachers, principals and administrators that are not chosen to work in those charter public schools.  Structurally the system can’t accommodate both with our shrinking enrollment.  Every time a charter public school chooses to hire a teacher that is not already in the public school system that is being down sized, it creates a greater structural issue for the entire public school system.  So I ask the school board with its CEO to come up with a plan that will not see us grappling with this problem year after year."

There’s a lot going on with this statement. I could talk about any number of issues related to employment. These issues certainly affect traditional schools as well. Ask any great principal in this city what the number one factor is in the ability to create a school and she or he will tell you it’s the ability to hire good people. And in making those decisions, those principals most certainly don’t want to hire from a limited pool. They want autonomy. So too do charter school leaders and operators.

The Mayor seems to be pinning this problem on charters. She should go back a bit. The school system faces two essential problems with staffing, maybe three. First, we have declining enrollment. She gets this. What she doesn’t get is that all teachers in the traditional schools and the public charter schools are in the public school system. Again, she’s trying to make a distinction between public schools and public charter schools and it falls flat. Collectively, we’re all dealing with the very same problem: the school system is losing enrollment. When this happens, fewer teachers will be needed, fewer school buildings will be needed. This is the way the world works. If you don’t think so, just look at Carroll County, which is facing the same dynamic. Within this dynamic some schools remain stable. Some traditional public schools and some public charter schools maintain enrollment and have large waiting lists. Still, these schools suffer because the overall school system is in decline.

The other point to take seriously is what happens when you give schools, when you give boards or principals or whatever governing structure you want, autonomy. When they can choose they will most certainly make staffing decisions. And when those decisions are made, there will be surplus staff. What happens to that surplus staff? Previous CEOs preferred school-based autonomy so they didn’t have to force staff on schools. Unless there is a force reduction, those staff members who can’t get positions in schools are still guaranteed a job. Nobody really wants to face down this reality, which is part of the collectively bargained agreements. This is a huge challenge and it can’t be ignored, however. It is most certainly not a problem caused by charter schools.

Mayor Pugh, as a final point, seems to understand how hard it is to manage a network of charter schools inside a larger school system. Essentially, she’s concluding that “the system can’t accommodate both with our shrinking enrollment.”

She’s absolutely correct here. We’ve got two systems running, the larger school system of traditional public schools and a smaller system of public charter schools. They don’t necessarily have to be at odds with one another, but they currently are more often than not because our current structures don’t effectively support both. We are tangled up together. We are dependent on one another.

The Mayor calls for the CEO and the school board to come up with a plan that will not see us grappling year after year. I’ll say again: This problem is so complex and so challenging that it can’t be delegated out. It needs focused work from the best thinkers in our city. The Mayor has to take the lead on this work. She has to be willing to get directly involved. She can’t just ask others to figure it out. Most significantly, when she talks about traditional public schools and public charter schools she must stop dividing them into different groups: they are part and parcel of the very same city school system. It may well be that a true division of charters and traditional schools is the best way to go, a division that could well be tightly managed by the school board and even the mayor. I’m still pondering this, thinking about what it looks like. I do know that what we’re currently doing hasn’t worked—and won’t work. 

Tags: ABI , Afya Baltimore Inc. , afya public charter school , Baltimore City Public Schools , brehms lane public charter school , tunbridge public charter school

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