Stalled leadership at Baltimore city schools?

A former Baltimore school board member makes a case against the city schools CEO.

The CEO of any large urban school system has one of the hardest jobs on the planet. Critics, therefore, have a special duty to be informed and constructive. I hope I meet that standard as I express reasons for a growing loss of confidence in the administration of Baltimore city schools CEO Gregory Thornton, who took office in July.

This viewpoint is based on extensive interactions with central and school-based staff during Mr. Thornton's tenure, as well as recent conversations with many knowledgeable persons outside the school system. My observations are further informed by my past experience as a two-time member of the city school board, consultant to the school system, and education analyst and advocate.

Mr. Thornton is caring, eager to please, experienced and seems to possess good judgment. He draws praise for good appointments to several top positions and support for the arts. But he falls short in his failure to come forth with any specific major plans or to otherwise make a discernible imprint. At the same time, when he has reacted publicly on a specific issue — for example, on the budget shortfall, deployment of school police or even his pending district reorganization — he has appeared to lack command presence.

He pledges to take actions, but there is little to no follow-through. At a school board budget forum, the Coalition of City Charter Schools and BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) sharply criticized his lack of follow-up and plans. I questioned Mr. Thornton's vague and inadequate proposal for summer school for below-level readers in grades K-5. And several board commissioners seemed impatient for more details about various budget proposals.

But concerns about his leadership run deeper.

Most important in my view, Mr. Thornton and his chief academic officer must take more action to develop a coherent, incremental plan to improve classroom instruction, especially interventions for struggling readers. Reading is the key to success in any academic subject. Yet basic policies and procedures for timely, research-based interventions, extra support for retained students, specialized instruction for students with disabilities and overall literacy management have been neglected or ignored. There is nothing in his sketchy reorganization proposal that meaningfully addresses these issues.

Moreover, he has not cultivated working relationships with stakeholders. Part of the reason is his administration's failure to pay heed to widespread complaints about lack of transparency. PowerPoint presentations lack back-up details. And more than any administration in my memory, staff frequently withhold routine information pending vetting or approval by superiors; often responses are not provided at all.

But in fairness, has he had enough time to show his leadership prowess? In fact the first "100 days" and certainly the first 11 months are critical periods. The job is so hard and resistance can be so stiff that leadership substance and style must be established fairly quickly. Average tenure for urban superintendents is only three years or so. A Sun editorial criticizing Mr. Thornton's budget stewardship, stated, "We don't expect school reform to happen overnight, but if it doesn't happen rapidly it might not happen at all."

True, he has had to confront budget problems resulting in layoffs. But that's a fact of life in urban public education. Other city schools CEOs over the past couple of decades have faced similar challenges, including his predecessor Andrés Alonso.

A related question is whether Mr. Thornton is being held to too high a standard, particularly in relation to the inordinately bold Mr. Alonso. I don't think so. A counterintuitive argument can be made that Mr. Alonso was an easy act to follow. He did a lot of the "dirty work" in seeding reform and had alienated so many staff that Mr. Thornton was welcomed in many quarters as someone who would work more closely and less abrasively.

The successor's task was mainly to sustain progress and implement effectively. In school reform generally, innovation is over-rated, and management skills are under-rated.

Mr. Thornton is quick to call himself a delegator. That can work if, as a manager, he follows the example of the legendary Earl Weaver and gets some "deep depth" in critical positions and displays stronger managerial moves. There's no time to waste. For disadvantaged students, time and opportunity fly quickly.

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

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
84°