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Patience is not always a virtue [Commentary]

The Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners is currently interviewing for a new CEO. On behalf of downtown parents with children in city schools, I'd like to suggest a few traits the new hire should not have:

Patience: Our school system made remarkable strides while Andrés Alonso was in charge, but we still have a long way to go. Graduation rates have improved, but thousands still leave the system without basic skills. Test scores are better, but there is still an unacceptable gap between white middle class students and almost everyone else. A bond issue for school construction has been authorized, but the system will need billions more to realize its goal of educating every student in a 21st century building.

No CEO can address these issues alone. Teachers, administrators and staff members need to embrace change in order to make real progress, and there are still far too many people within city schools content to do things the way they've always been done. Mr. Alonso replaced more than two-thirds of the principals in the system and recruited real talent for the central office. The next CEO needs to go even further, declaring war on complacency and tradition. We can't move slowly when each year of delay robs thousands of children of the education they deserve.

Listening skills: It's hard to find any group that's satisfied with the overall operation of city schools, but there's always loud opposition when it comes time to close or consolidate under-performing schools. No matter how low its test scores, or how dilapidated its classrooms, an individual school will always have its defenders — frequently, parents who attended that school and now send their children there. While every stakeholder deserves to be heard, the next CEO can't get mired down trying to achieve consensus. The system is in crisis, and tough decisions need to be made, sometimes over the loud objections of groups within the system.

Listening can be hazardous in another way. Mr. Alonso was famously accessible by email, personally responding to messages from parents. As "helicopter parents" discovered this, our departed CEO became a sort of ombudsman, getting drawn into issues related to particular students. Yes, the system desperately needs middle class families (like mine) to participate — but it also needs to lose the inferiority complex. At least a dozen public schools in Baltimore offer an education on par with the city's best private schools. The next CEO will need to concentrate on expanding that number, rather than managing the complaints department.

New ideas: It's tempting to believe that this year's new idea will finally fix what's wrong with our schools, but spend enough time in education and the new ideas begin to look like waves crashing on the shore, only to slide back into the ocean. If you're a veteran teacher in the system, you've seen plenty of leaders and their ideas come and go; it must be tempting to keep doing what you've been doing and just wait for the next change. To be truly effective, the next city schools CEO will have to give employees in the system a reason to change on their own. Imposing a new idea from the top will not be enough.

For that reason, the next CEO had better be someone who inspires the rank-and-file and understands what it's like to be a classroom teacher. Because no matter how many new ideas are introduced to the system, the success or failure of a big city school system ultimately boils down to how well each teacher educates a class full of students. An effective teacher, with adequate resources, teaching a manageable number of students in a well maintained building — it's an old idea, but one that works. What we need is someone who can turn that formula into a reality.

Every parent with a child in the system is familiar with the ritual of classroom and school assignments, when parents find out who will be teaching their child, or where that child will be going to school next year. Right now, those events are like lotteries, with winners and losers. Some children will spend the next year in a great school or with a great teacher. Others won't. The next CEO needs to lead the kind of wholesale improvement that leaves every parent feeling like a winner when those announcements are made.

Hugh Bethell is education advocacy chair of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance. His email is hugh@dbfam.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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