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Evaluating the schools chief

In the self-evaluation that was part of his annual performance review last year, Baltimore City schools CEO Gregory Thornton frankly acknowledged that he hasn't been a very effective communicator. The malaise that has settled over the system he leads appears to bear him out. Gone is the sense of excitement and momentum for rapid reform that characterized the district just a few years ago. In its place is a sense of drift and lack of leadership at the top that would be fatal for Baltimore's reform effort if allowed to continue. The city school board must not let that happen.

Parents, teachers, administrators and even Mr. Thornton's bosses on the board all complain they don't know where the system is going or how he intends to get it there. It may be that Mr. Thornton simply isn't the naturally gifted communicator that his immediate predecessor, Andrés Alonso, was during his tenure. But it could also signal that Mr. Thornton has failed to come up with long-term plans and goals designed to build on Mr. Alonso's reforms, and thus has no new ideas to express. The question is whether Mr. Thornton is merely a poor communicator or whether he doesn't have much to communicate. The former may be something the schools CEO can work on. If the latter, the school board may need to take action.

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The performance evaluation of Mr. Thornton's first year on the job was released by the school board this week in response to a Public Information Act request from The Sun. It paints a disturbing picture of a school system that lurches from one crisis to the next with no firm mooring or strategic compass. The board noted that "the CEO often neglects or seems to struggle with articulating an implementation strategy," and that "engaging the board on major projects and objectives to consider the future direction of the district has not yet happened." Though the board ultimately gave Mr. Thornton an overall rating of "effective," it called such failures deeply disappointing.

Mr. Thornton clearly needs to provide a well-articulated, overarching vision for improving the schools, coupled with the specific policy proposals and plans needed to realize it. Parents have to know what the schools are trying to accomplish if they are to help their children achieve, while teachers and administrators need detailed guidance regarding the purpose and long-term goals of the reforms they are asked to implement. When Mr. Alonso ordered principals to dramatically reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions, for example, he couched the change in terms of improving overall graduation rates and reducing dropouts. He also brought a sense of urgency to the project, saying that a system that isn't moving ahead is falling behind and that treading water is the same as drowning.

Mr. Alonso's tenure showed that Baltimore is far more receptive to a leader who will take risks and challenge orthodoxies when it comes to the effort to improve schools than many other cities are. He left in place a landmark teacher contract that rewards educators who excel in the classroom and state approval for a $1 billion school construction program. Everything was set for a new schools chief to take the system to the next level, but those high hopes are bound to be disappointed if the superintendent lacks the fire to seize the opportunity.

The school board's performance evaluation of Mr. Thornton acknowledges that he has been a competent steward of the district's finances, and it praised him for identifying ways to save money and improve the fiscal health of the system. "The CEO has been able to diagnose systemic issues in really impressive ways," it wrote, specifically citing the "speed and accuracy" with which his staff responded to a projected $60 million budget deficit last year. Mr. Thornton deserves credit for averting that crisis, but Baltimore's schools need more than just a good financial manager. The city needs someone who can formulate a clear academic plan to improve student performance and then communicate that plan to all the system's stakeholders. But Mr. Thornton too often has appeared unresponsive in that role, and Baltimore's parents and students can't afford to wait much longer for him to step up.

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