Laslo Boyd — Searching for Superman: The Future of Baltimore City Schools

By Laslo Boyd

After six years as the Superintendent of the Baltimore City Schools—a title that is still more descriptive than CEO—Andres Alonso has announced his resignation. The early reviews—please don’t call them a Report Card—are almost universally positive even as the many challenges ahead are also noted.

It’s clear that Alonso has made a real difference. The quality, real and perceived, of the school system is one of the key indicators of the health of Baltimore City and, although it gets less attention, of the economic competitiveness of the entire region.

That quality indicator can be thought of in positive terms—Are graduates of the City schools equipped to work in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century? Are employers able to hire well educated and prepared workers? On the other side of the equation are the negative questions: Are the city, the region, and the state saddled with uneducated citizens who need more services and assistance? Is innovation and economic growth avoiding the area because of shortages in the skilled workforce?

However you evaluate the specifics of his time here, Alonso has moved the school system in the right direction. He brought a level of stability by the length of his service, twice the national average for a big city superintendent. He has successfully tackled some long festering problems, including resolving a federal lawsuit on special education that dates back to 1984; getting the Maryland General Assembly to support a 10-year school construction program that will, from all sources, total almost $1 billion; and increasing public confidence by instituting accountability measures that were long overdue.

Progress has been evident on a number of other measures, including the one that Alonso stressed when he first took the job: graduation rates. Suspensions are down and enrollments are up. Test scores have improved, although that’s a more controversial item. Some doubt the validity of the tests while others point to problems at times with cheating. More national test results are due soon and will undoubtedly impact this particular discussion about Alonso’s legacy.

One key elements of Alonso’s approach has been his emphasis on decentralization. Central office staff was significantly reduced and principals were empowered to be real educational leaders at their schools. Alonso ended the practice of moving ineffective principals from one school to another, a decision that led to tension with the Principal’s Union but won him lots of praise from the outside.

The relative merits of decentralization have been argued as long as public school systems have been around. The risk with decentralization, and one of the most persistent criticisms of Alonso’s tenure, is the lack of a consistent curriculum as well as being disconnected from national and international education standards. And in a city like Baltimore where students frequently move during the course of a school year, that inconsistency can be a real detriment to learning.

Another concern is that, even while measurable improvements have been made, Baltimore schools still lag behind the rest of the state. The impact of concentrated poverty has been hard to overcome, but if your belief is that all children can learn and must be given an opportunity, that’s not a sufficient explanation.

Alonso was, by all accounts, a forceful, even as one long time school system observer put it, a “dictatorial” leader. He initially negotiated a contract that kept the School Board largely off his back, but that total freedom was reduced as membership on the board changed over his six years.

The job he had will never really be completed, but he deserves thanks and credit for the advances that he put into place.

The next superintendent has got to build on what Andres Alonso has accomplished, not start all over again and tear down the changes that Alonso put into place. The next stage will also require much more attention to curriculum than Alonso has given it. Still, the pieces are in place for his successor to continue moving the Baltimore City schools forward.

The immediate challenge is for the school board to engage in a thoughtful and deliberate process that starts with the recognition of where Alonso has brought the school system and identification of the top priorities going forward. Having an interim superintendent for the coming year gives them the opportunity to avoid rushing into a decision. Hopefully, that time will be used wisely.

The next superintendent has to have a vision, as Alonso did, an understanding of key issues, the skill and ability to work with a vast and often conflicting array of stakeholders, and a forceful personality. The pressures on the job are relentless and often unfair. Alonso apparently brought considerable pressure on the board to name his chief of staff as the interim, but the board now needs to exercise its independent judgment on who the permanent successor will be. It’s the most important job they have.

Laslo Boyd writes and consults about public policy, government, and politics. He is a regulator contributor to Center Maryland. His email is lvboyd@gmail.com.

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