Alonso's focus on principals carries benefits and risks
By Kalman R. Hettleman | Op-Ed in The BaltImore Sun
First of three parts -- About the author: Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His book "It's the Classroom, Stupid: A Plan to Save America's Schoolchildren," is due out next week. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
December 23, 2009 -- Over half a century after the best-selling book "Why Johnny Can't Read" shocked the nation, poor Johnny still can't read - or compute. Neither can poor Tyesha or Juan or millions of other predominantly low-income children of color.
This national tragedy is not because of lack of effort. For the past 25 years, the condition of public education has been regarded as a national crisis. In the name of reform, countless strategies have proliferated, most famously (or infamously) the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). It is impossible to find a single large, urban school system that has not been flooded over the years by an overflowing stream of reform initiatives.
Yet, none have succeeded on a large scale. Some urban districts have made progress - none more so than Baltimore. But not one, Baltimore included, has come close to enabling most students to score "proficient" on reliable national tests. And this educational underclass is growing: Low-income children are projected, over the next decade, to be a majority of all public school enrollments.
The big unknown is why. Why - despite our national wealth, miraculous technology and imperfect but abundant democracy - this failure? Unfortunately, no one knows for sure.
To start with, no one knows how well schools, by themselves, can overcome the harsh reality that poverty stunts academic growth. Family background is the strongest variable in student achievement. Yet, what goes on inside the schoolhouse matters too. Public schools can perform much better than they do. But for that to happen, we must learn the lesson taught by John Maynard Keynes. "The real difficulty in changing the course of any enterprise is not in developing new ideas," he wrote, "but in escaping old ones."
This applies to a trinity of conventional beliefs about school reform: first, that traditional education leaders know best how to improve our schools; second, that we need to retreat from NCLB and restore more local control; and third, that political officials must be kept out of public education. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
To envision how reform might really work, Baltimore's schools under CEO Andrés A. Alonso are a good place to start.
The spotlight has been elsewhere: New York, Chicago and the District of Columbia in particular. But my view, after a close study of the national landscape, is that Baltimore under Mr. Alonso has the best chance to reach the highest plateau of student success. Not only has no comparable system surpassed our sustained growth in test scores (that began before Mr. Alonso), but our school board is more harmonious and our teachers' union and community politics are less combative. Another big advantage is our relatively small size compared to other reform-minded districts.
But readers beware: I may be biased. As a member of the city school board, I was part of the 9-0 vote to hire Mr. Alonso as CEO beginning July 1, 2007. And after leaving the board in July 2008, I remain a big booster of his whirlwind leadership.
The well-publicized results of the first two years of Mr. Alonso's regime include soaring test scores, graduation rates and school enrollments. He has uprooted the central establishment and implanted a new culture of high expectations. He is by all accounts smart, strategic, bold and passionately devoted to kids.
But will the momentum stall or be derailed? Other celebrated urban superintendents in the past decade or so - among them, Alan Bersin in San Diego, Roy Romer in Los Angeles, Paul Vallas in Chicago and Philadelphia, and Rudy Crew in Miami - have flown high only to crash after a few years.
Whether Baltimore stays the course depends first and foremost on Mr. Alonso's staying power. He denies interest in job offers that have come his way, reiterating that it will take five to 10 years to complete the job. But he won't stick around unless the school board continues to give him a near-free hand. That seems likely if he stays on the good side of the mayor and governor, who jointly appoint board members, and if he keeps his ego in check. So far, so good. He is a better listener and more flexible than it sometimes appears.
Still, even if Mr. Alonso surpasses the usual short tenure of urban superintendents, will his theory of action - that is, his game plan for reform - hold up? The first pillar of his theory is fast, bold action. He has never put in writing a short- or long-term blueprint. He quotes racing driver Mario Andretti: If things are under control, you aren't going fast enough. He doesn't want to give entrenched interests time to marshal resistance. He refuses to accept staff complaints about lack of time or resources to meet his demands.
The downside to this is what Mr. Alonso, a baseball fan, will recognize as the "Billy Ball" syndrome. Fiery baseball manager Billy Martin turned four major league teams into winners, but burned out his players and wore out his welcome. Mr. Alonso recognizes that danger, particularly in the severe burdens that the second pillar of his theory of action - decentralization - places on school principals.
In his doctoral dissertation, Mr. Alonso wrote, "the single most important lever for superintendents is the choice, development and socialization of principals." Principals, he calculates, are the quickest and best way to cut through the old bureaucratic culture. They get almost all authority, whether they want it or not; and they get fired, as many have already, if they don't measure up.
Will this game plan succeed? School-based management, as it's commonly called, has been a longtime pet of school reformers. Yet, its research base is weak. In my view, that's because too much has been expected of school principals with too little central support. And under Mr. Alonso, the pace of decentralization may be too fast.
It's good to give principals full say over hiring of teachers and control of school budgets. But it carries a good thing too far to expect school principals to be experts on research-proven instructional programs. In medicine, if doctors don't use science-based treatments, it's malpractice. But not in education where, as management scholar Richard F. Elmore laments, "when I come into your classroom and say, 'why are you teaching in this way?' it is viewed as a violation of your autonomy and professionalism."
Mr. Alonso, while acknowledging the problem, has slashed the central instructional support system. This was done in part to save money and to shift the "dynamic of ownership" for school success from the central office to principals. But it was also done, I believe, because he doesn't sufficiently appreciate the least-recognized, most fatal flaw in national school reform: the mismanagement of the design and delivery of classroom instruction.
The public knows about bureaucratic follies pertaining to budgets, data systems, facilities and other operations. But below the public radar, school administrators also fail to provide classroom teachers with solid instructional programs, training, lesson plans, supervision and monitoring. These tasks are crucial, particularly in urban schools where veteran teachers are in short supply.
I think that Mr. Alonso can rise to this challenge and find a proper balance between holding principals strictly accountable and giving them sufficient support and time to grow into the job. But will even this be enough to reach the next heights of success?
Tomorrow: Toward "a New Education Federalism."
Expand 'No Child' through federal standards, funding
By Kalman R. Hettleman | Op-Ed in The Baltimore Sun
Second of three parts
December 24, 2009 -- No urban school system offers more hope than Baltimore's. Still, even if CEO Andrés Alonso stays the course (while fine-tuning it), city schools will need more resources. More must be done across the nation to fulfill, at long last, the legal and moral right of every poor child to a quality education.
The best hope for the future lies in what I call a "New Education Federalism." Its foundation is a larger, more muscular role for the federal government. But whoa - most educators and politicians are strongly opposed. Local and state control of public schools has always been regarded as sacrosanct. Its liberal and conservative defenders say that the failings of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) prove the point.
But rather than going too far, NCLB doesn't go far enough. NCLB seeks to hold schools accountable for the low performance of poor and minority students. But it has been undermined by political compromises, especially the provisions that allow state and local officials to continue to devise their own academic standards and tests.
How does it make any sense for 50 states (much less 14,000 local school systems) to have their own versions of what students need to know in reading, math, science and history? In fact, when it comes to education federalism, the U.S. is an underdeveloped country. Almost all our global competitors have national standards, tests and curricula. By contrast, we, under NCLB, have a notorious "race to the bottom" in which states dumb down their standards and tests to avoid sanctions and public embarrassment.
NCLB also does next to nothing to address, in Jonathan Kozol's memorable term, "savage inequalities" in school funding. Parents matter. School management matters. But so does the ability to pay for competitive teachers' salaries, training teachers, small class sizes, extra instruction for struggling students (during school, after school and during summers), school safety and decent facilities.
Yet, despite decades of lawsuits in almost every state, enormous inequities in per-pupil spending among school districts remain. A 2008 report, using the most recent data available (for 2005), showed that after adjustments for geographical differences in costs, the average gaps in spending of state and local funds between the highest-spending 25 percent and the lowest 25 percent districts was $938 per pupil (or about $25,000 per classroom).
Maryland, thanks to the "Thornton" law enacted in 2002, does more than most states to provide adequate funding. Yet, funding still falls far below need, and the current fiscal crisis has brought significant boosts in local aid to a halt.
Nationwide, the problem lies in vast differences in fiscal wealth and political will among the states. States fail to do more to eliminate disparities in funding because the school districts that would benefit most are politically as well as fiscally downtrodden. States are also under pressure to hold down taxes because of competition with neighboring states to attract industries and taxpayers.
This picture of low standards and inadequate school funding portrays a national failure that subverts the national interest in a well-educated citizenry and work force. Stronger federal action is imperative. It requires mandated national standards and tests that set a floor, not a ceiling, on what students should learn.
It also requires a federal guarantee of equal-opportunity funding for poor and minority children that can be accomplished through carrots (direct federal aid) and sticks (withholding federal aid from states that do not equalize funding on their own). And to ensure that the money is well spent, the federal government must raise the deplorable quality of education R&D and condition federal aid on local use of the best, research-based instructional programs.
Such a seemingly audacious plan for a vastly enhanced federal role isn't a political pipe dream. National polls show that despite the furor over NCLB, most Americans want it mended, not ended. Polls also reveal popular support for more federal funding and for national standards, tests and curricula. Most Americans are pragmatic, and the emotional attachment to local control is trumped by common sense and frustration over the plight of our schools.
Moreover, bear in mind that under the New Education Federalism, the federal government only fixes national standards for what every child is entitled to: namely, a world-class education. States and local governments and departments of education would still have great leeway in how federal standards are met: how students are taught, teachers are trained and federal aid is spent.
So it can happen. But if it does, will local school systems live up to their end of the bargain?
Tomorrow: The audacity of hope for poor children.
Shift school responsibility to mayors
By Kalman R. Hettleman | Op- Ed in the Baltimore Sun
Last of three parts
December 25, 2009 - The prospects for national school reform brightened with the election of Barack Obama as educator-in-chief. As a candidate, he signaled that he would try to find a "third way" though the battle lines in the education wars. A stunning opportunity arose when his administration - under the rallying cry, "Never let a crisis go to waste" - struck a balance in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act between short-term economic recovery and longer-term investment in the nation's energy, health and education systems.
The $100 billion stimulus allocation to public education doubles prior annual federal aid, including about a 50 percent increase in annual grants for low-income students and students with disabilities. On top of that is the $5 billion Race to the Top Fund. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, has almost complete discretion over how it is awarded, and it's the big bait to lure states and local school systems to reform their ways.
The watchword for Race to the Top runners is "innovation," and the winning applications are expected to emphasize tougher teacher evaluations, more rigorous standards and tests, and charter schools.
I have a mixed view of the stimulus-package largesse. On the plus side, it moves the nation a step closer toward national standards, tests and links between more federal money and research-based reform. Further, while these funds will only be available for two to three years, Congress will be politically hard-pressed to sunset completely the additional grants targeted to low-income and disabled students. And the Race to the Top aspirations are likely to work their way into a reauthorized (and renamed) No Child Left Behind Act.
On the negative side, as I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the most fatal flaw in school reform is mismanagement of the design and delivery of classroom teaching and learning. Put another way, policy innovation is less important than instructional implementation (and that applies to charter schools as well as regular public schools). No matter how imposing the federal role, local system school systems must win the education wars in the management trenches. Are they up to the task - and who should be in charge?
Another building block of a "New Education Federalism," the concept I introduced in Part 2, is an overhaul of local school governance, beginning with abolition of local school boards. It's true that local boards, whether elected or appointed, are good in democratic theory. But in practice, no matter how dedicated and able (as in Baltimore), volunteer board members lack the time and knowledge to make smart policy decisions, and elected boards in particular tend to politicize policymaking. Worst of all, they prevent clear executive accountability: a single person who can be held responsible for local performance.
Mayors are best suited to assume this authority and be held accountable. Historically, city halls have been happy to avoid the headaches that come with running school systems. But modern mayors recognize that schools are indispensable to urban renaissance and are attuned to wielding executive authority. With their political necks on the line, mayors will be more prone to challenge education establishments, install nontraditional superintendents and insist that management systems be retooled.
Mayors Michael Bloomberg in New York and Adrian Fenty in D.C. have gotten legislators to shelve their school boards and are staking their mayoral legacies on school reform. They are intrepid and making headway, and a few other mayors are trying to follow suit. Thus, under a New Education Federalism, the White House and Congress should be at the top and mayors at the base of the public school chain of command.
I am not accidentally overlooking state governments and departments of education. Some, like Maryland, have made notable efforts. But as NCLB proves, as a whole, they can't be counted on. They have severe political and management shortcomings of their own, and will always be diverted from a focus on poor urban students because they have so many diverse districts, including rural and suburban ones, to tend to.
In the final analysis, only audacious reform has a chance to succeed. And it is unconscionable not to go for it. Our national self-respect and self-interest demand that we not waste any more time and young lives.
●●smf’s 2¢: ….and the series started out so well!
I: The teaser for the third part of this series was “The audacity of hope for poor children” – and then the author advances the tired magic bullet of mayoral control! ‘Audacity’ or ‘Paucity’ of hope? I’m not going to abuse our local mayor here – mainly because our school district is actually subject to 26 municipal jurisdictions – and separate and varying iterations of 26 mayors, city managers and supervisors. In California municipal governance relies upon strong city councils and weak mayors anyway, most local mayoralties circulate between city councilmembers.
II: The author writes: “Mayors are best suited to assume this authority and be held accountable” …and cites The mayors of New York and DC as examples. If there is a less accountable politician than New York's Bloomberg (“If parent’s don’t like the way I run the schools they can boo me at parades’) I don’t know who it is without revisiting Third World dictators or George III. DC’’s Fenty has handed off the schools to Michelle Rhee (who in a connect-the-tabloid-dots moment is dating the former basketball star/charter operator/Mayor of Sacramento) - and she seems ready to hand off the schools to charters and vouchers.
President Obama has sends his children to a Quaker school – perhaps the Society of Friends should run our schools? If only it weren't for that pesky 1st Amendment!