Awesome-Sauce, Not So Much: Why We Are Where We Are Today

Awesome-Sauce, Not So Much: Why We Are Where We Are Today

To understand why things are so bad financially for our schools now—and they are very bad—2010 is the place to look. At the time, everything was, as my kids say, awesome-sauce. Dr. Andres Alonso was our CEO and he was at the peak of his powers, working at a furiously fast pace to transform the school system. A principal proudly stated that Baltimore schools were thriving. Everything was great and fair. Allocations to schools were known as Fair Student Funding. Banners on buildings said Great Schools. The school system’s Internet was named Great Kids (it still is). We even had something called Expanding Great Options (EGO). A lot of promises were made.

There was a lot of sincere and determined work happening then. There was also way too much ego. Everything awful happening to our schools today started in 2010.

It began with the federal initiative Race to the Top (RTTT).  In August of that year, Maryland received $250 million of RTTT funding. Baltimore City received about $46 million. There was a swirl of activity. Everything about public education was going to change and change for the better—fast. Many people, including myself, have deep reservations about Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education. My cynicism is tempered, somewhat, by the fact that Arne Duncan and Barack Obama gave us RTTT and Ted Kennedy gave us No Child Left Behind. “We have unleashed this unbelievable creativity,” said Duncan at the time.

What was actually unleashed, at least in Baltimore City, was an unbelievable influx of bureaucracy built on educational philosophies that were as much wishful as wise. Data became king. A nice chunk of that $46 million Baltimore got, therefore, went to pay for high-priced data managers and statisticians. These folks were very smart. I worked with many of them. They built data systems that could crunch the numbers provided by standardized tests and opinion surveys and a blend of other instruments. Whatever the merits of this work, this much is fact: Virtually all of the work was funded by RTTT grant money. When the grant money ran out, sometime around 2014, all those creative and smart people that built the systems that supported the work left. Everyone still working here now, in schools, bears the weight of those prior promises.

But there’s more. The current teacher and principal contracts are byproducts of RTTT. These contracts also started in 2010. Promoters again used effusive language to describe their promised effect. These contracts would change instruction and increase student performance—all for a cost savings.

Contracts of any kind rarely do one of these things, let along all of them. This one was no different. Among the many problems with this agreement between the union and the school district, two stand out for me. First, the heart of the contract depended on tying teacher ratings to student performance on standardized tests. This belief was core to the argument espoused by education reformers (here are a few) that believed we should pay teachers more money but in return demand better performance. Standardized tests were key indicators of this performance.

The problem was that the tests that propped up the whole theory weren’t ready. In 2011 we were moving away from the MSA and to the PARCC, which didn’t go into full effect until 2015. In the gap years, there was little testing that was valid for any use, let alone for evaluating teachers and principals and incentivizing their pay based on performance. The vacuum was filled with fluff. The promise of objectively assessing performance by using a series of scientific measurements gave way to shoddy and partial implementation, using sources that sabermetricians politely call “soft”.  Salaries rose dramatically, especially for those that stayed with the work. Performance of the kind imagined in the 2010 contracts did not follow.

The other problem with the contracts is linked to the employee benefits. The benefits that the school system provides for its employees are too expensive. There’s no other way to say it. And it appears that in no small part because of this a lot of people are about to be out of a job.

RTTT wasn’t good for anybody in Baltimore City. It has been terrible for charter schools. Why? Because its proponents have become some of the most controversial names in the educational field and they have become overly associated with Baltimore charter schools.

The work of these educators/advocates, and their funders, is highly controversial, though not without success. In Baltimore, the influence of reformer philosophy has buried the system in debt and increased the need for centralization and control. Good, independent-minded charter operators have no interest in being controlled by an ineffective bureaucracy, and they can’t survive when the school system is awash in deficits.

And so we have fought the district for years now. In doing so, too often, and regrettably, we have been associated with the national charter scene, a scene that I know for a fact than many, perhaps even most, local charter leaders are repulsed by—or at least deeply skeptical of.

Another initiative that started in 2010 isn’t a failure, but we never fully grappled with its implications. I’m referring to the 21st Century Building Plan. Who can argue with the fact that too many of our schools are in no condition for kids? In my long career, I’ve worked in many of these buildings. The moral imperative is self-evident: Kids shouldn’t be in schools that are dirty and in disrepair. Little else related to the project has provided such clarity. The Jacobs Report said in 2012 that the school system needed about $2.4 billion to address its facility needs. We now know that number was woefully inaccurate. Furthermore, the school system is required to pony up millions of dollars annually ($30 million next year) as part of the plan. The financial implications of this plan are only now becoming fully apparent. The school system is ill-equipped to handle these responsibilities.

So there it is: 2010. Teacher and principal contracts, a big grant from the federal government, and a massive building plan all began in 2010. What a year!

Yes, Baltimore has revenue problems. As ACLU of Maryland tweeted recently the city has been dramatically underfunded by the state’s Thornton Plan. So too have other jurisdictions.

Baltimore City also has very serious decision-making and management problems. Key decisions were made in 2010 that were either bad or not fully considered. The management of these decisions has been poor. Compounding our problems is declining enrollment.

In 2005 the school system was on the edge of fiscal collapse. In 2010 it appeared that we recovered. We didn’t. We set in motion a series of decisions that have, again, in 2017, brought us to the cliff’s edge. I was a principal at Waverly Elementary/Middle School at that time in 2005. The city rallied and saved the schools. I remember those times well. Things are much scarier now.

What should we do? For the moment, and for this posting, all I can say is I’m quite sure, based on what I know and have lived and worked through, that caution is considerably better than ego.

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