Real reform is here

Despite what the Fordham Foundation thinks, the pace of change in Baltimore schools is dizzying

September 19, 2010|By Matthew Hornbeck

Let's play a game. It's called "The Dozens." Usually it's played by elementary or middle school children, but adults can play too. It's about being clever, witty and harsh and ultimately winning — although what you win is often nothing more than fleeting satisfaction. The rules: You call me a name and then I hurl an insult back at you. Things escalate until one of us wins. It's definitely not based on evidence, but it can be fun — or end in a fistfight. Most of all, the goal is to play the game in front of a bunch of other people — in this case foundations and education policy shapers and makers. The crowd oohs and aahs at the increasingly mean-spirited taunts.

Fordham Foundation, you go first.

"You're great, but overbearingly authoritarian. You don't have a good mayor. Your state assessment is worthless. You don't like the cool problem-solver companies that a lot of our funders like. Your union is the devil. It's too hard to get a meeting with you to pitch new products. You are top down. I don't like Baltimore and neither do my friends."

You get the point. Let's stop the game there.

Those statements summarize a report just out from Fordham called "America's Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform." This misleading, flimsy report gets many of the facts wrong. Based on anonymous conversations with a handful of local people, stereotypes of unions and a sloppy synthesis of older reports written about education systems and reform in Maryland, Fordham gets it wrong.

Words can hurt. The stakes are higher than hurt feelings. Name calling at this level has an impact on kids because it clouds and politicizes the conversation around student success. When Fordham uses its bully pulpit to bludgeon Baltimore City Schools under the auspices of criticizing state and city conditions for reform friendliness, it makes it harder to tell the true story of reform in Baltimore and Maryland. Our ability to engage in the national conversation around what works and can be sustained is hobbled by the rhetoric in this type of soft, biased study.

Baltimore City is not under mayoral control. We have a union. Charter schools are not their own local education agency in our state. Clearly, Fordham's team of researchers think there is a "right" answer to whether those things are good or bad, evil or pure, pro-business or anti-business.

Let's look at some facts. For the second year in a row, Education Week ranks Maryland's schools as No. 1 in the nation. Maryland was an early signer of new nationwide standards — the Common Core Standards. New, better assessments tied to the new standards will make students more internationally competitive and halt two decades of decline in the performance of American students.

Maryland was competitively selected to receive a quarter billion dollars in federal Race to the Top funds. The Maryland State Board of Education voted to make student achievement 50 percent of the annual evaluation for teachers and to extend the period before teachers receive tenure. There is a vibrant local foundation community supporting district level change and public/private ventures such as the Middle Grades Partnership. Local funders have ponied up millions in support of bringing dozens of outside operators to start 6th through 12th grade "transformation" schools. Parents have more choice in Baltimore City than ever before — there are 54 schools run by outside operators. Twenty-one of those schools opened in the last three years. All but four of the 33 charter schools in Maryland are in Baltimore City.

The speed of change and reform in Baltimore under CEO Andrés Alonso during the last three years has been startling and clearly not within the capacity of Fordham's team of researchers to capture.

Baltimore City doubled the number of Teach for America teachers this year. TFA has been a part of Baltimore for nearly 20 years. The Baltimore Teachers' Union was the only union in the state to sign on to the Race to the Top proposal, making it far more likely that we would win. Our teachers' union is fully engaged in cutting edge negotiations to change the way teachers are compensated, moving from a traditional contract to a knowledge and skills-based approach. In terms of quality control — another nebulous and metric-less measure Fordham looked at — 11 percent of teachers in Baltimore City were rated unsatisfactory last year. What other urban district has that kind of attention being paid to quality at the classroom level?

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