Rx for failing schools

Our view : Reform requires changing more than simply how schools are governed

September 14, 2008

The number of failing schools in Maryland is rising, and more than 60 percent of them are in Baltimore, where nearly a third of the schools are in dire need of improvement. A report by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy found that 63 schools in Baltimore were undergoing some form of restructuring because they failed to show adequate progress for two years in a row under the federal No Child Left Behind law. That's a wake-up call for citizens that despite the progress Baltimore has made, including this year's dramatic rise in test scores, much remains to be done.

The state measures progress under the federal mandate by standardized test scores. In Baltimore, as in other urban districts with histories of underperforming schools, meeting the annual yearly progress targets becomes more difficult each year because the benchmarks for success keep going up. As a result, schools that score poorly initially have to improve even more quickly to avoid falling further behind. Otherwise, they enter restructuring, a complicated and lengthy process that can range from hiring "turnaround specialists" to replacing entire staffs.

Yet there's no evidence that simply changing a school's governance leads to better student performance. The report's authors implicitly acknowledge as much by noting that only about 16 percent of failing schools ever manage to improve enough to get out of restructuring. By contrast, there are plenty of examples of strong principals and teachers being decisive factors in students' progress.

That's where Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso is rightly trying to leverage reform. He's made appointing dynamic principals and teachers a cornerstone of his strategy, along with promoting innovation and alternative schools aimed at accelerating students' capacity to learn. And he's made rapid, measurable progress a priority.

If it works, city schools should register big improvements again next year on state standardized tests, and the number of failing schools should begin to drop. That would be the best evidence yet that Baltimore finally has begun to turn its troubled schools around.

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