A never-finished job

Trying to solve Baltimore's biggest problems is alternately frustrating, rewarding

December 01, 2009|By Timothy D. Armbruster

The late senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once wrote, "If you don't have thirty years to devote to social policy, don't get involved." Good advice from someone who spent the better part of his career doing just that, along the way reminding us that the hard business of repairing urban communities is decidedly not for the short of wind.

As it happens, it has been 30 years - just a bit less than half my lifetime - since the directors of the Goldseker Foundation invited me to Baltimore to work toward lessening some of the many social and economic challenges this city and region confront. In that time, the work has been, and remains, alternately interesting, challenging, engaging, intellectually rewarding, painstakingly slow and frustrating.

The symbol "30," in earlier times, was a reporter's shorthand that told the city desk editor a story had reached its conclusion. Reflecting on my experience of 30 years in a place I've become much attached to, it seems to me that in the civic arena, there is no equivalent of "30" - no end to the story.

The challenges that face our urban communities are so complex and so intractable that even when clear improvement occurs (as it often does), the urban dynamic is such that problems are never actually solved. They tend instead to be recurring, needing periodic attention for years, often for decades. As the late John Gardner told us in his 1997 book "Boundary Crossers," one of the most important lessons in dealing with an urban problem is that, as he put it, "It's never over."

Perhaps the most conspicuous and frustrating example of how difficult it is to produce change has been the underperformance of Baltimore's public schools. Despite, by my count, the efforts of seven chief executive officers over the past 30 years, the response to several generations of abysmal student performance has typically been that only vastly increased public funding can overcome the obstacles to learning that economic and socially disadvantaged students bring with them.

The idea that more spending per pupil is the solution to poor performance has been discredited for years. If greater per-pupil expenditures were the answer, the Washington, D.C. schools would be national models. What makes an effective school is not that complicated. Good places to begin include: a longer school day and school year, clear behavioral rules, principals who control budgets and hiring, families that want their kids to be in school in the first place, well-trained teachers and flexible work rules. But for a very long time, sensible operational changes like these seemed impossible to achieve.

What is encouraging is that in the past few years, a willingness to acknowledge the failure of the educational system and begin meaningful policy changes has been embraced by local political and educational leaders, the most obvious example being the hiring three years ago of a charismatic, able chief executive officer with an ambitious reform agenda. It remains a long road to a system of great schools in Baltimore, but we're seeing that successful public schools can take many forms, that innovation is possible and that kids from impoverished economic and family backgrounds can and will learn.

However, the work of restoring cities is not an enterprise with controllable, stable inputs. In contrast with a private business, it does not readily lend itself to reliable or predictable outputs. It is the nature of the issues we deal with each day that makes an exit strategy next to impossible to imagine, much less predict.

So it is safe to say that even after working hard for 30 years to strengthen neighborhoods, encourage regional thought and action, expand educational options and improve the performance of the nonprofit sector, we won't be declaring victory and going home any time soon.

Recently, I was speaking with a much younger colleague at a meeting in another city, who said the chief executive where he worked was soon to be stepping down after a highly successful 19-year tenure. And while he liked and admired his boss very much, he explained to me that 19 years is, after all, far too long for anyone to hold the same job.

On the contrary, I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have had the opportunity of such an interesting, intellectually challenging and ultimately fulfilling experience during my long time in Baltimore.

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