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

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

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

Build

I’ve argued previously in this blog that to better understand the school system’s current problems, we should look at the policy decisions made in 2010. To understand what it will take to create a better school system going forward, 2008 is the place to start.

In 2008, Andres Alonso began his first year as CEO of the school system. He was relentless, passionate, gregarious, energetic, accessible, arrogant, captivating and fierce. Of all the CEO’s that I’ve worked with over the last 25 years, he was far and away the one with the clearest sense of what was necessary to confront the systematic and cultural conditions in place that limited educational opportunities for children in Baltimore. One time, a few days before school started, he sent out an email to all school leaders that said to make sure that there was no graffiti on any student desks. I was the principal at Afya PCS at the time, and I had some furniture arriving at the last second and wasn’t sure it would be there in time for the start of school. My backup plan was to use some old furniture, borrowed from another school. It had a lot of graffiti on it. I wrote back to him and let him know of my predicament. His response, which came about 30 seconds later, was but one word: Unacceptable! That was Alonso at his best. He accepted no excuses.

Alonso’s theory of educational action called for putting children first in policy-oriented ways; for confronting the bureaucracy, which he called a “cartel”; and for prioritizing school-based autonomy and decision-making. As I’ve written previously, there were many problems with the implementation of this vision. To summarize: During Alonso’s tenure, the principal turnover rate was off the charts. Because Alonso hated the concept of centralization, he annually reorganized North Avenue. The churn prevented complacency but also created instability. A bigger problem was the district’s commitment to Race to the Top. Alonso’s core philosophy prioritized autonomy and school-based decision-making. Race to the Top was about standardization. Worse, it required adding a layer of bureaucracy at central office to manage things like the teacher and principal contracts. Race to the Top, at least philosophically, drove a wedge through the school system. Another critical problem during the Alonso tenure was the school system’s inability to identify and adhere to a coherent curricula. With school-based decision-making came a potpourri of instructional approaches, too many of which lacked rigor or meaningful links to standards. 

In 2014 Alonso left Baltimore for a position at Harvard, where he still works today. As I’ve written, we are still struggling with many of the decisions that he made or advocated for. His gift to the city should not be forgotten, however. His first two years were remarkable for their originality and for their commitment to the importance of school-based decision-making and the power of autonomy.

The early ideas of his administration, I believe, still hold the key to a better future for our school system. We simply need to do a significantly better job of implementing them. Furthermore, we absolutely must make certain that we no longer chase the newest/latest federal educational reform effort in the hopes of boosting funding, which is exactly what we did with Race to the Top. We must, as a city, be more courageous and confident in our educational beliefs and the needs of our students. We must be confident and organized enough to demand appropriate funding not because we’re willing to jump through this hoop or that—but rather because it’s a moral imperative. We can’t, under any circumstance, adopt things like new teacher and principal contracts because it’s the trendy thing to do, which is exactly what they were in 2008 and 2009. Track down the results of all those contracts that popped up at that time, contracts that came with promises of innovation and collaboration and higher student performance, and what you’ll find is that many of them have been abandoned, or led to teacher strikes, or—when follow up agreements are required—to an impasse, which is what we now have in Baltimore City.
 
What we can do is remember the best of what Dr. Alonso fought so valiantly for and update and/or add on to those values. We can build from them, hone them, make them better. And then, of course, we need to sustain them, to hold on to them. Here are the guiding principles, with comments about each. In my final blog in this series, I’ll write more extensively about how to sustain these ideas over time—that is to say, how to hold on to them and build from them—and what they look like in practice in schools and throughout the school system.   

1. School-based autonomy and decision making 

The reason why it’s so important to continue to make school-based autonomy and decision making a priority is because bureaucracies almost always organize against this principle. It’s significantly easier to centralize decision making. The school system needs to assert and re-assert, as Alonso did in the early years, that if you want to engage in meaningful decision making, impactful decision making, then go work in a school. It’s really as simple as that. And what are the key decisions that schools should have significant control over? It’s all about personnel and money. I can be bluntly clear about personnel. If you want more good personnel you simply have to be willing to let principals recruit and hire people—and fire them. Autonomy over staffing is critically important. We understand this to be the case in nearly every kind of organization outside of public education. In education, we tell principals that they can have power over the position—as in they can have this position or that—but not the person. This is indefensible. 

I’m more nuanced about control over money. I do think the school system should guide schools about allocation of resources. And I do think curriculum is an area the school system could be very helpful to schools with—as I’ll discuss later. The one thing that must change is year-to-year budgeting. Schools usually get their budgets approved in May. When the fiscal year begins in July, they then have eight or so months to spend because all too often there’s a spending freeze around that time, and the central office vacuums up unspent funds soon thereafter. This happens with general education funding. It’s a big issue with grant funding. 

This budgeting process needs to change. Creating and sustaining a school takes time and planning. Schools and school communities shouldn’t be under the spending gun annually. They should know what resources they have—and will have—and be able to plan for the near- and the long-term. If that means saving money from one year to the next to invest in certain initiatives, then so be it. Bottom line— there needs to be significantly more autonomy around money-management at the school level. 

I can hear the critics now: But we don’t have enough principals who can really manage this work. We tried this and it didn’t work. I have three responses. First, it’s true we don’t have enough school leaders to manage schools this way, but we do have some and these folks thrive with this kind of autonomy and their work should become the cornerstone, the anchor of the school system—the place of strength that we build from. Second, our highest priority should be to develop more of these kinds of leaders. We have never really tried to do this kind of training. Yes, a few years back we got a healthy grant or two for principal training and development. But the implementation of this grant ended up being insufficient to the challenge. At one point, it was led by someone who had never been a principal. As Alonso would say: Unacceptable! Third, not having enough capacity at the school level is no reason to try and centralize control, because the fact remains that staff at central office, no matter how good, can never, ever affect serious and lasting school-based change. The reason for this is their efforts come as indirect support. Making great schools takes direct, long-term, day-to-day, action. 

2. Funding should follow the child into the schools and enrollment is the driver

The city is losing enrollment year after year and we have to confront this reality and face it down. There are some very difficult decisions for us to make. We have too many buildings and too few students. We have no choice but to consolidate. The school district does seem to understand this and is taking gradual steps to address the problem. Gradual steps are not enough. The truth is that there are very few levers to pull to attract more families and students to the city and the school system, especially in the near-term. Furthermore, we should all be very skeptical of any claims by political leaders that this initiative or that initiative will grow enrollment—either in the city or the school system. I can remember five times in the past decade when promises were made about initiatives that would lead to population growth in the city or enrollment growth in our schools. They are: The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC); Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s goal of attracting 10,000 new families to the city; Dr. Alonso’s “Kids Come Back” campaign; the Port Covington development project; the 21st Century School Buildings Plan. As I write this, we even have another effort underway, the B3 campaign, led in part by the teachers’ union. 

None of these efforts have worked. In the early 1990s the school system’s enrollment was about 95,000 students; it’s now below 80,000. Alonso’s efforts did lead to an enrollment bump, but the “ghost student” scandal of 2015 called the veracity of these efforts into question. This past year, the city lost about 7,000 people, despite the promises of BRAC and the hopes of Rawlings-Blake, nearing a 100 year low. The Port Covington project promoted, early on, the addition of 10,000 newcomers to the city. Developers are already hedging on this number. Our students deserve to go to school in modern buildings. There’s no evidence, however, that building new schools will attract more families. 

All of this is to say that we simply have to recognize and confront the reality that the city’s population is in decline and it’s very hard to imagine growth. The school system must adapt to this reality much faster than it is currently. Money, and spending for education, should follow children directly to the schools and schools need to have ample and sustainable enrollment. If they don’t they can’t stay open. The language related to this reality is dehumanizing. We’re talking about children here. Kids. Little ones. Loved ones. But by keeping open under-enrolled schools we are subsidizing something that is not sustainable, we are draining off resources that are needed elsewhere. 

This part of the series, part three (Build), will continue next week, when I’ll discuss the importance of curriculum and school-based professional development, the need to re-define accountability, and the crucial strategy of building from our current strengths to replicate and multiply our best efforts.