Alonso's Focus On Principals Carries Benefits And Risks

December 23, 2009|By Kalman R. Hettleman

Over half a century after the best-selling book "Why Johnny Can't Read" shocked the nation, poor Johnny still can't read - or compute. Neither can poor Tyesha or Juan or millions of other predominantly low-income children of color.

This national tragedy is not because of lack of effort. For the past 25 years, the condition of public education has been regarded as a national crisis. In the name of reform, countless strategies have proliferated, most famously (or infamously) the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). It is impossible to find a single large, urban school system that has not been flooded over the years by an overflowing stream of reform initiatives.

Yet, none have succeeded on a large scale. Some urban districts have made progress - none more so than Baltimore. But not one, Baltimore included, has come close to enabling most students to score "proficient" on reliable national tests. And this educational underclass is growing: Low-income children are projected, over the next decade, to be a majority of all public school enrollments.

The big unknown is why. Why - despite our national wealth, miraculous technology and imperfect but abundant democracy - this failure? Unfortunately, no one knows for sure.

To start with, no one knows how well schools, by themselves, can overcome the harsh reality that poverty stunts academic growth. Family background is the strongest variable in student achievement. Yet, what goes on inside the schoolhouse matters too. Public schools can perform much better than they do. But for that to happen, we must learn the lesson taught by John Maynard Keynes. "The real difficulty in changing the course of any enterprise is not in developing new ideas," he wrote, "but in escaping old ones."

This applies to a trinity of conventional beliefs about school reform: first, that traditional education leaders know best how to improve our schools; second, that we need to retreat from NCLB and restore more local control; and third, that political officials must be kept out of public education. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

To envision how reform might really work, Baltimore's schools under CEO Andr?s A. Alonso are a good place to start.

The spotlight has been elsewhere: New York, Chicago and the District of Columbia in particular. But my view, after a close study of the national landscape, is that Baltimore under Mr. Alonso has the best chance to reach the highest plateau of student success. Not only has no comparable system surpassed our sustained growth in test scores (that began before Mr. Alonso), but our school board is more harmonious and our teachers' union and community politics are less combative. Another big advantage is our relatively small size compared to other reform-minded districts.

But readers beware: I may be biased. As a member of the city school board, I was part of the 9-0 vote to hire Mr. Alonso as CEO beginning July 1, 2007. And after leaving the board in July 2008, I remain a big booster of his whirlwind leadership.

The well-publicized results of the first two years of Mr. Alonso's regime include soaring test scores, graduation rates and school enrollments. He has uprooted the central establishment and implanted a new culture of high expectations. He is by all accounts smart, strategic, bold and passionately devoted to kids.

But will the momentum stall or be derailed? Other celebrated urban superintendents in the past decade or so - among them, Alan Bersin in San Diego, Roy Romer in Los Angeles, Paul Vallas in Chicago and Philadelphia, and Rudy Crew in Miami - have flown high only to crash after a few years.

Whether Baltimore stays the course depends first and foremost on Mr. Alonso's staying power. He denies interest in job offers that have come his way, reiterating that it will take five to 10 years to complete the job. But he won't stick around unless the school board continues to give him a near-free hand. That seems likely if he stays on the good side of the mayor and governor, who jointly appoint board members, and if he keeps his ego in check. So far, so good. He is a better listener and more flexible than it sometimes appears.

Still, even if Mr. Alonso surpasses the usual short tenure of urban superintendents, will his theory of action - that is, his game plan for reform - hold up? The first pillar of his theory is fast, bold action. He has never put in writing a short- or long-term blueprint. He quotes racing driver Mario Andretti: If things are under control, you aren't going fast enough. He doesn't want to give entrenched interests time to marshal resistance. He refuses to accept staff complaints about lack of time or resources to meet his demands.

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