Accountability for city schools

June 23, 2006|By JEANNE ALLEN

WASHINGTON -- The departure of Baltimore schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland presents an opportunity for the city's leadership to put aside special interests and embrace a model of change that puts accountability for performance first.

Ms. Copeland could have done more and the school board could have looked inside rather than blame her for failures in the school system. The real question is what a new permanent chief executive officer can do - and how - to right serious wrongs in the delivery of education in Baltimore. Charlene Cooper Boston was appointed interim CEO on Tuesday.

Consider what has occurred in New York City under schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein in just a few short years.

Mr. Klein, a Clinton administration anti-trust lawyer, is running one of the most entrenched political bureaucracies in the world. The city school system there makes Baltimore's issues seem like a walk in the park. But with support from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and a few city leaders, Mr. Klein has begun to reverse decades of failure. For one thing, he challenged the teachers union to adopt more performance measures in their contract, and won.

He and Mr. Bloomberg set standards and enforced them so that the performance standings of all students are now provided regularly to parents and the public. They recently took on the principals union to push for principals to have more control over hiring of teachers, training, curriculum and budgets if the schools agreed to meet performance standards. And Mr. Klein has advocated for and helped increase the number of charter schools so that more families stuck in failing schools have choices.

These are issues that need to be tackled in Baltimore, but history shows that such ideas have been rejected. To get charter schools started, for example, the school board took nearly two years to consider applications, and even then the bureaucracy nearly killed the enthusiasm and drive of the founders of these new models of education (which are still underappreciated).

And in an even more stunning oversight of the perils of bad education, city leaders rejected the effort by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to move in on 11 schools that have failed to perform since 1997.

Of the high schools Ms. Grasmick targeted, the best pass rate on the algebra test in 2005 was 10 percent. Of the seven middle schools targeted, the best pass rate for eighth-grade math that year was 25 percent.

For too long, the school board, and even Ms. Copeland, have acted as if these issues have more to do with the students and where they come from than with the education system. Students do not cause schools to fail. The fault lies with the system, which cannot impart even basic skills to the children. All over the country in cities with just as many poor and needy children, there are schools where the achievement rate is 90 percent.

Ms. Copeland, the school board, Mayor Martin O'Malley and the majority of state legislators were not willing to close the 11 chronic failing schools and open them under new management, despite proof that it works. They were focused instead on politics.

How many state legislators would tolerate a school such as Northwestern High, where 78 percent of students graduated in 2005 despite a pass rate on the algebra exam of a mere 8.8 percent?

The state's takeover of 11 failing schools in the city is just one way to reverse decline, but it takes being willing to break up a bad system to create the conditions necessary for success. Like Mr. Klein, Baltimore's future permanent schools chief need not be - and probably should not be - a veteran of education. But it should be someone who is willing to change bad contracts that have nothing to do with performance, to implement policies that allow the closure or restructuring of failing schools and to take the necessary steps to terminate principals whose schools do not perform.

That may mean firing people, giving better teachers more money for performance (which will clash with union policy), opening more charter schools or taking over bad schools, which is required under both state and federal law.

Jeanne Allen is president of the Center for Education Reform. Her e-mail is

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