Alonso's buyout plan: putting the best teachers in the classroom

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso's is offering early-retirement buyouts to as many as 750 teachers at the same time that he is proposing yet another reorganization of the school system's central office. Both initiatives aim to build on the progress city schools have made during the last four years. But the real test remains whether the changes produce tangible improvements in student achievement and in the quality of classroom instruction. Tinkering with the mechanics of the organizational chart is only a means to that end, not the end in itself.

Mr. Alonso surely knows that because he's been the first to acknowledge that all the macro-level changes in the world won't mean much if the end result isn't an excellent teacher in every classroom. That's where individual learning actually occurs, and it's the hardest part of the school reform process to get right.

The buyout offer promises to give the city more flexibility in managing the staff reductions that will likely be necessary because of cuts in state funding to local school districts. It may also help boost morale if it allows Mr. Alonso to replace teachers who are not enthusiastic about the system's new union contract with teachers who are. Given the spike in applications for Baltimore City teaching posts since the approval of the new contract — which offers the promise of significantly higher salaries for teachers who are most able to boost student performance — it seems likely that Baltimore will be able to pick and choose among the best instructors.

The key is to manage such a turnover in the teaching ranks without repeating the experience of cities like Washington, where mass teacher layoffs and firings under reformist schools chancellor Michelle Rhee sparked a firestorm of protest that helped end her career as well as that of Mayor Adrian Fenty. The buyouts could give the city a way to winnow out ineffective or burned-out teachers who are just going through the motions until they can retire by letting them exit gracefully.

Similarly, Mr. Alonso's plan to shrink the headquarters staff for the third time in four years only makes sense if the result is to transfer more resources to individual schools. That was the aim of the two previous headquarters shake-ups, and it's even more of an imperative now that the system is facing a projected $73 million budget deficit in 2012, as well as the potential loss of $15 million in state funding due to the end of the Obama administration's stimulus program, which helped cushion the impact of the recession over the last two years. Maintaining the system's financial stability in an uncertain economic environment is crucial to keeping the reform process on track.

Since Mr. Alonso's arrival in 2007, Baltimore has made significant progress in replacing failing schools with ones that work, in giving principals greater autonomy over their budgets and making them accountable for results, and in raising expectations for what all students are capable of achieving.

But if reform is to be successful, change has make itself felt at micro level of individual classrooms and teachers in the form of higher quality instruction at every level. That's the ultimate measure of success for Baltimore's school reform effort, and it's a challenge the city must meet if it is to foster the kind of education students can truly use to transform their lives.

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