A perpetual hot seat [Commentary]

The new Baltimore schools CEO, Gregory Thornton, starts work Tuesday. And regardless of the outside temperature, he'll be on a hot seat from day one.

The challenges facing any urban school district superintendent are super-daunting. In Baltimore, expectations are high in the wake of the reform style and exceptional accomplishments of prior CEO Andrés A. Alonso.


Moreover, Mr. Thornton's first-day assignments are a heavy load. To name just a few: budget shortfalls; the $1 billion school construction program; fiscal and authority disputes with charter schools; the controversial teacher evaluation system; and perhaps most fateful, implementation of the rigorous Common Core academic standards and tests.

What he won't lack also is lots of advice. Mine — as a former member of the city school board and education policy analyst — may be a little different, however. Its focus is on a subject neglected nationally and even by Mr. Alonso: what I call the instructional infrastructure.


Put more simply, to reach the next plateau of reform and student achievement, the Baltimore City Public School System must greatly strengthen its capacity to provide more support for teachers in everyday classroom instruction. In theory, everything the school system does should be targeted on classroom teaching and student learning. But it doesn't happen with sufficient firepower or precision.

A big obstacle is the fact that the central Teaching and Learning department — charged with development of curriculum and teacher support — under the Chief Academic Officer (CAO) has been understaffed. There has been a strong effort to flesh out lesson plans and train teachers to implement the Common Core. But the central capacity still falls far short, especially with respect to reading and language arts. Believe it or not, for the greater part of the past seven years, the position of director of literacy has been unfilled.

As a result, too little attention has been paid to timely interventions, the earlier the better, for struggling readers. No school factor is more determinant of student success. While the office of early childhood learning has been a bright spot, overall BCPS has been too slow to prioritize and push the best research-based reading intervention programs. There's a shortage of staff with the expertise and time to get this done.

In addition, the school system has been reluctant to mandate or pressure schools to use best practices in reading programs. Mr. Alonso took a good thing — school autonomy over elements such as hiring and budgets — too far, allowing schools and teachers to do their own thing, so to speak, in choosing how they teach literacy.

Of course the professionalism of teachers must be respected. But the knowledge gap is particularly large when it comes to interventions for students who are failing to meet grade level standards in reading and language arts. Most principals, already overloaded, are not literacy experts.

In medicine, if doctors don't use evidence-based treatments, it's called malpractice. In education unfortunately, it's called "professional autonomy." At the least, central administrators should presumptively mandate research-based programs. Schools should be required to use the prescribed programs unless they can show past acceptable results or otherwise make a compelling case for an exception.

I am presently chair of the Baltimore CityWide Special Education Advocacy Coalition. Mr. Thornton no doubt recognizes that well over half of all students who are classified as "disabled" and placed in special education would not need to be there if they received timely, ample extra assistance prior to referral to special education.

Money also figures in. Interventions for low-performing students can be expensive. Often tutoring with small groups of no more than four or five students per teacher is necessary. But there can be no higher priority for new or reallocated funding from any sources.


The design and construction of such an instructional infrastructure rests primarily with Mr. Thornton's new Chief Academic Officer Linda Chen, who also begins Tuesday. She has a strong literacy background but will need more support and resources than her recent predecessors were given. Strengthening her role and a laser focus on classroom instruction, in my view, should be Mr. Thornton's first priority on his first day in office, notwithstanding all the other apples (and lemons) he will find on his desk.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is

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