Clear, Build, Hold: The Last of a Four-Part Series

Clear, Build, Hold: The Last of a Four-Part Series

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

Build continued, and Hold

I’ve been writing for several months now about building a better school system. I’d like to bring the series to a close with this entry. Before doing that, I’d like to summarize my previous writings. To date, I’ve advocated for the following: First, we have to repeatedly make sure that the schools themselves are where the power lies. Maximum autonomy and decision-making should be in the schools and in the communities—not at North Avenue. Second, personnel decision-making is critically important and we need contract agreements with teachers and principals that allow for flexibility, require performance, and more than anything don’t exist to guarantee jobs.

Third, enrollment is our crucible. We all need to face this. We can’t have a situation like we had a few years ago where the CFO of the school system advocated for aspirational budgets built on hopes and dreams. We can’t believe that building new school buildings will attract new families. We can’t follow the false promises of politicians or developers who claim they are going to grow Baltimore’s population by thousands of people annually. We’ve tried all of these things in the past few decades and the city’s population and the school system’s enrollment have rapidly declined. This is our reality. We need to confront it. We need to honestly assess what our enrollment will likely be ten and 20 years from now and build accordingly. This, quite likely, means that our schools need to be funded at a level that isn’t solely tied to enrollment. We have to make that case, collectively and effectively, but we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can solve our problems by snapping our fingers and increasing enrollment. We’ve placed this bet for a long time now, and we’ve lost. This is also the reason that we can’t create employment contracts that guarantee jobs. If we have fewer students, we’re going to need less capital—human and/or actual school buildings. We can’t agree to contracts that we can’t afford and that are inflexibly binding.

This final part of the series, part four, will finish discussing the Build strategy: 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; as well as the final part of my vision for improving Baltimore City’s public school system in 25 short years, Hold.

Build continued

(3) Curriculum development

There are many other things we need to focus on, and of the highest importance is curriculum development. Over the years, the school system has made multiple attempts to develop its own curriculum. Goodness, I remember working on curriculum writing in the early 90s, during the summer. This approach—teachers writing curriculum—is still employed now. It’s not effective for any number of reasons, including a lack of coherency. It’s not that teachers can’t write curriculum. Some surely can. It’s not that teacher input with respect to curriculum isn’t important. It surely is. But the truth is that of all the things teachers need to do and do well writing curriculum is the least important of them. In this age of information and collaboration, there is more curriculum available across the content areas at affordable rates for teachers, schools, and school systems to access than ever before. And this is what our school system should be doing: focusing on helping schools access the curriculum that is available and making sure that what we are using is the best possible curriculum for our students.

As for implementation of the curriculum, the instruction, here’s where I believe centralization has had perhaps its most corrosive affect over the years. Time and again, the school system has adopted this curriculum or that, slammed it down on schools, mandated implementation timelines, and then demanded assessments be given to check progress. This approach has never worked and never will.

The best teacher training, indeed the only hope for effective teacher training, is to make absolutely sure that the schools themselves are the hubs for the work. Out of the schools we should develop networks of professional development and training opportunities. The school system’s highest priority, then, isn’t to try and train people, it’s to facilitate the training by helping to create networks, by highlighting great work, and by building from the strengths we have. The single best professional development work that has occurred in the city in the last 25 years was the work of Linda Eberhart. While working at Mt. Royal as a teacher, Eberhart began an approach to mathematics that she called MathWorks. The approach to math instruction wasn’t what was magical about her work. I’m not even sure she was a trained mathematician. But she was a hell of a teacher and she was incredible at teaching other teachers how to teach. By sheer force of effort and creativity, Eberhart developed a large network of teachers that came together and learned from one another. They talked instruction. They talked teaching and learning. They focused on results.

This is the very kind of work that needs to be replicated now. In our city, there is currently tremendous teacher activism focused on issues of equity and social justice. This is powerful and important work. Instructional practice, curriculum implementation, must be of equal importance, however, and we need to work to re-create networks of teachers that are interested in the nuts-and- bolts of effective teaching, the pedagogy of good practice. These networks can grow and build and will, most certainly, have much more impact than attempts by central office to control or lead training.

Creating networks of teachers that are connected through the work of implementing curriculum effectively requires the belief that the power base in the school system is in the schools. A related strategy for building a better school system, one that also requires this belief, is that we need to build from the strengths that we have. Our central office has never been a strength of the school system. And while Dr. Santelises is a strong leader and has started some promising work, it never will be or never should be the strength of the school system. The strength is in the schools, in the classrooms. That’s the place we need to build from.

4. Build from our current strengths to replicate and multiply our best efforts

Right now we have a number of schools and principals that are working effectively. To me, for the purposes of this blog, it’s not really important to discuss the number. It might be 20, it might be 50. There might be more—but there aren’t enough. The point is, we have foundational strength in our schools, and our school system has this base of well-run schools from which to build upon.

From these schools, we need to build. The principals need to be given maximum autonomy. These principals should be developing future principal pipelines. These principals should be expanding their roles to impact other schools, other communities. Out of these schools, our professional development networks, discussed above, should begin and flourish. We’ve done some of this work in the past. As I’ve written, I came up via the CEO’s District, which was an initiative built on the ideas I’m espousing. We’re doing more of this work now. Marc Martin, the principal at Commodore John Rodgers, who worked with me at Waverly, is currently leading a small network of turnaround schools. This theory of action, I submit, is the absolute key to our future. We need to build from the schools and communities that are working and expand their influence. In other words, we need to give the power to what is working and essentially get out of the way so these people, these communities, can thrive.

Pick a number. Let’s say we have five or six principals in the city right now who can go into really challenging schools and turn them around. We need to build from the talents that these folks have. If these five or six can, in three or four years, work with five or six schools to dramatically improve them, then we’ve doubled our success. Now we’ve got ten or 12 schools that have “turned around” and it’s the responsibility of those ten or 12 to work with the next cohort of schools.

Yes, this approach is a slow build. It will take time. Years, actually. But it’s the only way, I believe, that we can build a sustainable school system that endures, over time. We build from the ground up, from the school up, one community at a time. We put the power, the resources, in the schools. We give these schools, these communities, real decision-making power, true autonomy. We do all this and we can do some things that have lasting, enduring impact. We rely on our old systems, our old definitions of what schools and communities should look like, and we’ll get what we’ve got now: a school system in perpetual decline, or at least one that churns through ideas and people at an alarming rate.

5. Redefine accountability

A final point that I’d like to discuss, briefly, is a new definition for accountability. For the past quarter of a century we’ve used standardized testing as the ultimate accountability tool. There is some legitimacy to this kind of testing--but only some. And for the purposes of building a new school system, I’d argue that standardized tests have very little use at all—or, if there are ten things that are most important to the work, standardized testing is the 10th most important.

In 2001 when I started as a principal at Waverly, Baltimore City’s performance on standardized testing was at the bottom of the state. Sixteen years later, after MSPAP, after the MSA, after PARCC, we’re in exactly the same place. We’ve had a few spikes in positive performance over the years but cheating scandals have certainly undermined this success, to some extent. My point is this, we can give all the variations of standardized tests we want. It’s almost certain that the tests will yield the very same results. To the extent that Baltimore City improves its success on tests will never equal that of our more affluent neighbors. That’s a straight fact.

The one caveat (he says with some irony) that I would add is that there are certain things that we could do to truly close the achievement gap, the poverty gap. We could provide universal, free early childhood education, starting at age three. We could extend the school day and the school year. We could provide individual tutors for at-risk students, beginning in grade six. We could do all of these things and more and as long as the people implementing them were high quality people with high quality skills we could make a significant dent in the problems.

If we did all this for the next five, ten, 20 years, and we had the additional billions of dollars to do it, and the necessary people in place, then I think we could have a real conversation about performance on standardized tests. (Having the right people in place remains the critical piece. Earlier in the series I wrote about the Renaissance Academy. I read now that the Ravens are donating $1.5 million to renovate the school. Obviously, this is a great thing. We can’t forget, though, that while expensive, building/renovating buildings is the easiest part of the work. It’s what happens inside the school building that matters, that is sustaining. It is and always will be about the people.) Until then, we need a different definition of accountability, one that focuses on simpler things, things like: Is the school attracting and keeping students and families? Are the students making academic progress (there are indeed lots of legitimate ways to determine this separate of state-mandated tests)? Are the students happy? This is particularly important in the elementary grades. Do students feel safe? What percentage of staff members enroll their students in the school? Does the school have the support of the community? Is the school clean and welcoming? Do the people who work in the school smile a lot or yell a lot? Can everyone in the school articulate the long-term vision—ten years!—of the work? Are the cafeteria staff, the secretary, the custodians nice to kids? Do the teachers have fantastically great attendance? What’s the school’s rating on Facebook and other online sources? Does the community have structures in place to hold the leaders and teachers of the school responsible for their performance? Do school leaders embrace those structures and/or work to create them if they are not there?

Hold

It’s time to end this series now. What I’ve tried to articulate here is a vision for what could be. I’ve done this, ultimately, because I thought I had something to say, based on some experiences and successes and failures that I’ve had over the years. I thought that I needed to speak up and to speak out. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I hope you hold on to a little of it. The holding on to things is the final and most important piece to all that I’ve discussed. Over the years, we’ve tried too many things and let them go as we’ve churned through personnel and the resulting change. Leaders at every level must understand that while some change is inevitable, things like sustainability and stability are, in these trying and often traumatic times, significantly more important to the city’s future.

The essence of creating good schools remains essentially the same as it was ten, 20, or even 30 years ago. We need to build from these essentials. I must say that as we do this, conventions should matter little. Some of what we call traditional schools are doing this sort of work. There are state and federal interventions that seek to focus on this kind of work. The best charters get directly to this sort of work. The city needs to be open to multiple pathways to get to a certain result—better schools. Most importantly—and what a challenge this is! — we need to understand that there are many things that simply can’t be controlled centrally. Right now, we operate under a theory that if we build a school here or there, and then re-direct students to those buildings, the families will follow the given directive. I’m deeply skeptical of this approach, having seen it fail time and again. I say, in contrast and in closing, that we need to build out and up from the strengths that we have—the great people and the great schools that we currently have. The expanding gravitational pull of these strengths will attract, energize and motivate people, stabilize neighborhoods and communities, and give our city something real and hopeful to hold on to.

- Will