Baltimore gets 'C' in grading of education 'reform-friendly cities'

Alonso says report has too narrow focus on school system's efforts

August 24, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore lands in the middle of the pack among other large cities undergoing education reform, according to a study released Tuesday. A resistant teachers union and lack of a quality control are among the obstacles the district has to overcome to continue making progress, the study says.

In a report published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, "America's Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform," Baltimore ranked 17th out of 26 of large cities that have the supports in place for education reform. The Fordham Institute also gave the city a grade of "C", based on criteria that examined elements of districts undergoing successful changes in education.

"Baltimore definitely has a strong [superintendent] and exciting things happening, but that's not enough to make a city as a whole an attractive locale for reform," said Stafford Palmieri, a policy analyst at the Fordham Institute and a co-author of the report. The Fordham Institute is a nonprofit organization that conducts research in elementary and secondary education reform at the national level.

The city ranked high in the areas of school system staff and the district's overall environment, but fell short in support from the city's political leaders and local media.

The report ranked the city among the lowest in the area of quality control — which includes state tests and data systems, as well as guidance for non-traditional operators who take up reform projects in the city.

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso denounced the study, alleging shortcomings with its methodology. "It is a very flawed report, with a very narrow view of school reform, with absolutely no apparent concern for how its rankings relate to progress in districts in terms of student outcomes," Alonso said. "It is based on a survey of a handful of people who obviously share its biases. The work is about student outcomes."

Palmieri said the focus was not on test data, but about "how to recreate a system." A combination of data, surveys and interviews was used to grade the following areas: human capital, financial capital, charter environment, quality control, district environment, and municipal environment.

The report also said Alonso has sparked a "positive buzz" about the school system in the city, and is a one-man-show when it comes to reform. But the report also described him as "a whirlwind for change and overbearingly authoritarian" — traits that could be repelling national financial investors.

Another shortcoming identified in the report is a "restrictive teachers union contract" that places too much emphasis on the tenure of teachers, rather than their quality.

Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said that the city's teachers union was the only one in the state to support new federal reform programs.

"We wouldn't have gotten Race to the Top without the BTU," English said. "This union is at the forefront of reform."

Baltimore was among 11 districts that received a "C" grade, along with districts such as Boston and Los Angeles. The school districts of New Orleans, New York and Washington received the highest marks, all receiving "B" ratings. None of cities examined received an "A." Detroit was the only city to receive an "F."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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