Big talent eyes big task--saving city schools Hornbeck boasts successes in Maryland, nationwide

June 14, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh

By most measures, David W. Hornbeck is a success in an arena that dwarfs Baltimore and its problems.

Mr. Hornbeck, a native of Knoxville, Tenn., who was Maryland's well-regarded state superintendent from 1976 to 1988, has built himself a national reputation as an education consultant. He serves on about a dozen national boards and panels, including one advising the nation's governors as they map out reforms to address the decline of America's schools.

He helped draft Kentucky's education reforms -- adopted by the state legislature last year. He spends his days shuttling around the country, advising states and cities on their educational woes. He says he likes what he does and would be happy to keep on doing it.

But in becoming a candidate for the city schools job, Mr. Hornbeck, 49, is following a dream that has become ever more elusive among America's elite educators: showing that urban school systems can work.

"I think if there were a broad enough base of support here and the resolve were great enough, that Baltimore could be the first big American city to have all of its students achieving at significantly higher levels," said Mr. Hornbeck, whose two sons, Mark and Matthew, attended city schools.

"He [is] deeply committed to the agenda of urban education," said Ernest L. Boyer, former U.S. education commissioner under President Carter and president of the Carnegie Foundation in Princeton, N.J. -- where Mr. Hornbeck is a board member. "He wouldn't come to this as another job."

Mr. Hornbeck wants to remake Baltimore schools, convinced that big improvements require big changes.

Whether he becomes the city's next school superintendent depends, for his part, on whether Baltimore and its leaders agree that drastic change is necessary, Mr. Hornbeck says.

"If I sense that people really do want me to be superintendent and also -- and not necessarily in that order -- that they buy into an aggressive agenda of change . . . then I think the job can be done," he said. "And if they don't, I want somebody else to occupy the position."

In his interview with the city school board last Friday evening, Mr. Hornbeck presented a nine-point analysis of what it would take to "do the job."

He also said that if chosen, he would favor selecting a black deputy superintendent. Mr. Hornbeck is white; city schools are majority black.

The ingredients of his plan include an emphasis on professional development for school system employees, a complex testing program, shifting authority and responsibility to the school level, designating "advocates" for all children and establishing prekindergarten programs for disadvantaged students.

The plan talks about emphasis on what students can do as opposed to what they are taught -- a focus of Maryland's education reforms. It includes the controversial elements of accountability that have been sweeping the nation: rewards and punishments for schools, based on their progress as measured by tests.

As carried out in Kentucky, Mr. Hornbeck's vision translated into financial bonuses for individual employees, based on the progress of their school or school system as measured by a complex set of tests that evaluate such elements as students' health and their performance after graduation.

Kentucky's penalty for schools and school systems that do poorly over the course of two years can include losing control of the school to a designated educator. Students who attend failing schools are permitted to leave to attend successful schools.

Critics of Mr. Hornbeck question whether his background in law and theology -- he has never been a teacher -- equip him for the realities of running a school system. "I continue to feel that it's only the people in the trenches who really understand what's important and what isn't," said Jo Ann Robinson, a Baltimore school parent who has long been active with the League of Women Voters' education committee.

But those who have worked with Mr. Hornbeck in national circles say his experience would bring Baltimore rare benefits, including extensive connections with the country's network of foundations and charities -- a source of money that Mr. Hornbeck's suggestions for reform might need.

"I don't think you could possibly find a better candidate," says Kati Hacock, vice president of the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, an advocacy group that includes Mr. Hornbeck in its board of directors. "He is a terrific mind -- peerless in that regard, in terms of education thinkers. I think he has new and sensible ideas about how to improve urban education.

"It's a rough job, especially for a white guy," Ms. Hacock added. "I think he knows that and is willing to do it anyway. . . . And it's quite possible that he will be, two years from now, as bloodied as the others. So he is taking some serious personal risks here."

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