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Moving forward in city schools

The governance structure put in place by former city schools CEO Andrés Alonso should be updated, not scr

Baltimore City schools CEO Gregory Thornton says he wants to roll back some aspects of his predecessor's policy that gave principals more authority over budget and staffing decisions at their schools. No doubt some adjustments are due in the governance structure instituted by former schools CEO Andrés Alonso in 2008, but we are more interested in seeing Mr. Thornton develop the next generation of Baltimore's education reforms rather than going about reversing the last one's. Giving principals more authority to run their schools may not have solved all of the system's problems, but that doesn't mean it was a mistake.

It's important to note that some schools made great progress under Mr. Alonso's decentralized school governance scheme. At the same time, however, other schools continue to struggle with low test scores and high turnover rates among principals who fail to turn their schools around. For whatever reason, the current governing structure hasn't been as successful in promoting change at some schools as it has been at others.

That has created a widening gap between the system's best- and worst-performing schools, and Mr. Thornton is right to see those disparities as a problem. He wants to establish a new "tiered support" policy that would give successful principals the most autonomy while subjecting less successful ones to various degrees of closer scrutiny and control by headquarters. The extra help from the cental office could take the form of assistance with accounting and procurement procedures as well as additional staff training and support.

Perhaps it should come as no big surprise that the school governance structure put in place by Mr. Alonso seven years ago has had only mixed success. Mr. Alonso chose to focus initially on the role played by principals in order to create a foundation on which other, more substantive reforms could proceed. For example, he followed up that initiative with changes designed to deal with issues that have a more direct impact on individual student achievement, such as reducing out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, boosting high school graduation rates and focusing on preparing students for college or careers. In the broad scheme of things those issues completely overshadow such questions as whether the central office or the school principal decides how many pens and pencils to buy every year.

That some schools have progressed rapidly while others appear to have stagnated may not, in fact, have a great deal to do with school governance at all. There are so many factors that potentially can affect individual students' achievement in school — the quality of instruction, parental guidance and support, household income or illnesses in the family — that there is probably no one-size-fits-all solution to the task of school reform. If Mr. Thornton can improve the areas where the policy has been a success and fix those where things aren't working, more power to him.

The real issue, though, is whether Mr. Thornton is pulling the right levers in his effort to improve performance. The idea of allowing principals greater autonomy to run their schools as a reward for producing results in the classroom was fundamentally sound when it was first proposed, and it remains so in our view. But it was never intended to solve all the system's problems, and it didn't. If we had a complaint about Mr. Alonso, it is that he focused too much on issues of school governance and not enough on classroom instruction. Rather than tinkering with a seven-year-old a decision that clearly has helped some city schools, we'd rather see Mr. Thornton focusing on those areas where Mr. Alonso invested less time and energy.

We agree with Mr. Thornton on the need for changes that help schools struggling catch up with those that advanced farthest as a result of Mr. Alonso's policies, and we stand behind him even more strongly in his desire to continue raising overall student achievement levels across the city. Despite the progress Baltimore has made in recent years, students here still lag behind their peers elsewhere in the state. But moving ahead on that front doesn't require reversing a policy that, despite some uneven results, clearly has produced important successes for some city schools.

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