Give Thornton some credit

Are Baltimore City schools headed for revolving door leadership?

Your editorial, "Evaluating the schools chief" (March 12), does a good job of pointing out the fact that Baltimore City schools CEO Gregory Thornton has not articulated a clear vision of how to move the academic performance of the Baltimore City Public Schools forward. There are data available on the length of time that it takes to turn around a school system, and they suggest that it takes several years, not the less than two years Mr. Thornton has been in Baltimore. You also accurately point out that Mr. Thornton's predecessor, Andrés Alonso, did a phenomenal job of improving graduation rates and reducing drop outs. However, you failed to mention the mess that Mr. Alonso left for Mr. Thornton.

Mr. Thornton's tenure began with cleaning up a multi-million dollar budget mess, a major cheating scandal and major staffing failures. When Mr. Alonso arrived, the school system had experienced several years of rising test scores and an effective plan for improving failing schools. The CEO's district had been set up to support the lowest performing schools and provide professional development for principals and instructional staff. It achieved remarkable success. At that time, the system was organized in areas. Area II, like the CEO's district, had developed a professional development plan that resulted in every school in the area either meeting Adequate Yearly Progress goals or making significant progress toward meeting them. Other areas began adopting these successful practices and there was a sense of optimism in the system.

Mr. Alonso arrived with a preconceived notion about how to move schools forward. His basic philosophy was that if he simply held principals' feet to the fire and made them aware of the consequences of failure, they would get off of their butts and improve instructional outcomes. The data on turning a school around indicated that it usually took 3-to-5 years to accomplish that task. Mr. Alonso gave principals two years, and when they did not succeed, he demoted them, not back to assistant principals but to the teacher level positions. Principals felt the pressure and passed it on to their staffs. Mr. Alonso also eliminated the staff who monitored testing for signs of improper practices. Not surprisingly, the result was an increase in test scores, some of them so remarkable that the Maryland State Department of Education investigated and found that there had been cheating in several schools. The state agency's limited resources only permitted them to investigate a few schools; it is logical to assume that the testing was much more widespread. I do not recall The Baltimore Sun ever reprinting a revised report on Baltimore City test results, nor did it make a report on what may have caused this sudden surge in cheating.

In 2008, there were four or five qualified candidates for each vacant principal's position in the school system. In 2010, there were nine principal vacancies at the start of the school year. The Sun, again, did not report on what caused this problem. During Mr. Alonso's tenure, hundreds of teachers were imported from as far away as Texas and the Philippines. Mr. Alonso was the longest serving CEO in the system's history, yet he never addressed this serious problem. In the aftermath of the riot of 2015, we came to realize that community policing is critical to the relationship between the police and the citizens. The relationship between a school system and its citizens is also critical. In a city where large numbers of parents do not see education as a viable option for improving the lives of their children, it is critical for them to see themselves represented in the schools that serve their children.

During his short tenure, Mr. Thornton has solved a major budget crisis and reached out to retired Baltimore City Public School principals to enlist their expertise and relationships to help him improve educational outcomes for children. Most books on leadership suggest that a leader assess the situation prior to making reforms. Solving the budget crisis required his immediate attention and may have distracted from his analysis of instructional problems and how to move forward. It appears as though his biggest mistake may have been in rubbing the charter school community the wrong way by reducing their budgets. That community represents many of the city's most well-educated and influential parents. His refusal to respond to their concerns may result in his ouster. Unfortunately, it looks like we will have to endure another era of revolving CEOs.

Michael Cheatham

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