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Real reform is here

Let's play a game. It's called "The Dozens." Usually it's played by elementary or middle school children, but adults can play too. It's about being clever, witty and harsh and ultimately winning — although what you win is often nothing more than fleeting satisfaction. The rules: You call me a name and then I hurl an insult back at you. Things escalate until one of us wins. It's definitely not based on evidence, but it can be fun — or end in a fistfight. Most of all, the goal is to play the game in front of a bunch of other people — in this case foundations and education policy shapers and makers. The crowd oohs and aahs at the increasingly mean-spirited taunts.

Fordham Foundation, you go first.

"You're great, but overbearingly authoritarian. You don't have a good mayor. Your state assessment is worthless. You don't like the cool problem-solver companies that a lot of our funders like. Your union is the devil. It's too hard to get a meeting with you to pitch new products. You are top down. I don't like Baltimore and neither do my friends."

You get the point. Let's stop the game there.

Those statements summarize a report just out from Fordham called "America's Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform." This misleading, flimsy report gets many of the facts wrong. Based on anonymous conversations with a handful of local people, stereotypes of unions and a sloppy synthesis of older reports written about education systems and reform in Maryland, Fordham gets it wrong.

Words can hurt. The stakes are higher than hurt feelings. Name calling at this level has an impact on kids because it clouds and politicizes the conversation around student success. When Fordham uses its bully pulpit to bludgeon Baltimore City Schools under the auspices of criticizing state and city conditions for reform friendliness, it makes it harder to tell the true story of reform in Baltimore and Maryland. Our ability to engage in the national conversation around what works and can be sustained is hobbled by the rhetoric in this type of soft, biased study.

Baltimore City is not under mayoral control. We have a union. Charter schools are not their own local education agency in our state. Clearly, Fordham's team of researchers think there is a "right" answer to whether those things are good or bad, evil or pure, pro-business or anti-business.

Let's look at some facts. For the second year in a row, Education Week ranks Maryland's schools as No. 1 in the nation. Maryland was an early signer of new nationwide standards — the Common Core Standards. New, better assessments tied to the new standards will make students more internationally competitive and halt two decades of decline in the performance of American students.

Maryland was competitively selected to receive a quarter billion dollars in federal Race to the Top funds. The Maryland State Board of Education voted to make student achievement 50 percent of the annual evaluation for teachers and to extend the period before teachers receive tenure. There is a vibrant local foundation community supporting district level change and public/private ventures such as the Middle Grades Partnership. Local funders have ponied up millions in support of bringing dozens of outside operators to start 6th through 12th grade "transformation" schools. Parents have more choice in Baltimore City than ever before — there are 54 schools run by outside operators. Twenty-one of those schools opened in the last three years. All but four of the 33 charter schools in Maryland are in Baltimore City.

The speed of change and reform in Baltimore under CEO Andrés Alonso during the last three years has been startling and clearly not within the capacity of Fordham's team of researchers to capture.

Baltimore City doubled the number of Teach for America teachers this year. TFA has been a part of Baltimore for nearly 20 years. The Baltimore Teachers' Union was the only union in the state to sign on to the Race to the Top proposal, making it far more likely that we would win. Our teachers' union is fully engaged in cutting edge negotiations to change the way teachers are compensated, moving from a traditional contract to a knowledge and skills-based approach. In terms of quality control — another nebulous and metric-less measure Fordham looked at — 11 percent of teachers in Baltimore City were rated unsatisfactory last year. What other urban district has that kind of attention being paid to quality at the classroom level?

Most importantly the work is not top down. Change is real and for the long term in Baltimore City. We are emerging from a period of shifting enormous responsibility and autonomy — coupled with higher expectations — to schools. The next phase of the work is well underway and involves focusing the district on college readiness and other real-world measures that move beyond standardized testing. Curriculum is not top down either. So long as rigor and higher-level skills such as applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating are the goals, curriculum decisions are largely left to schools. Dr. Sonja Brookins-Santelises, our new, brilliant chief academic officer, is leading that charge. And Mr. Alonso — who can be deliberately authoritarian when he decides to — has publically said that he's committed to staying for 10 years. Consistency, stability and continuity are key tenets of the work.

In the first months of Mr. Alonso's tenure, he needed to fix a broken, inequitable and dysfunctional central system of funding schools. He wanted a school-based person to lead the effort to move more dollars and control to schools — away from the central office. As the principal of a conversion charter school, I led that work.

Under the Fair Student Funding initiative the question asked by dozens of school and central staff was not "What will the central administration give or leave to schools?" Instead, Mr. Alonso wanted everyone to know that the central administration exists to serve schools. The question became "What resources should schools leave at central administration and why?"

In 2007, more than $70 million previously held at North Avenue was pushed out to schools. For the first time, money followed the student. In the past two years, the funding work has been further refined with better guidance being provided to schools. There is a new case study on the funding work in Baltimore just out from Harvard's Public Education Leadership Program.

Mr. Alonso sends a clear signal that schools must be customer driven — parent and student focused. We are engaging parents like never before. After declining for 40 years, enrollment is up for the last two years. There are climate surveys given each year to each student and each family. Principals are required to engage their parents in the budgeting process and to present draft and final budgets to parents and school family councils.

When parents complain, Mr. Alonso freely gives out his e-mail address and responds to each complaint. However, two years ago his administration established a command center that routes concerns directly to principals and tracks the resolution. We have a new data system — School Net — just now online that will move us into the 21st century in terms of being able to see historical data on student records, performance and attendance.

The head of the principals union recently looked out across a large auditorium of principals and declared that he no longer knew very many of his members. This is nothing new to anyone who has been a part of the revolutionary work in Baltimore City. The word "entrenched" no longer applies to the leadership of schools in Baltimore. Change is happening.

In terms of the business climate, the district has been and is open to local and national operators such as Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools and KIPP. A quarter of Baltimore's nearly 200 schools are run by outside operators, and a quarter of the 130 new principals in the last three years have been recruited and trained by New Leaders for New Schools.

Charter schools receive $9,424 per pupil, nearly double the amount provided five years ago. Charters are able to hire extra teachers, extend the school day and year, and substantially renovate their buildings.

Student outcomes are steadily improving in Baltimore City. Scores are up. There's a focus on academic rigor. Already the longest serving superintendent in Baltimore City since 1994, Mr. Alonso is building local capacity to sustain school reform efforts.

Fordham should serve up fewer bumper sticker findings that comport with their worldview and instead look — with open eyes — for where real change is taking place. Baltimore is open for business.

Matthew Hornbeck is in his 8th year as principal of Hampstead Hill Academy (www.hha47.org). Hampstead Hill is a Pre-K through 8th grade public charter school serving 615 students in southeast Baltimore City. His e-mail is jmhornbeck@bcps.k12.state.md.us.

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