One of the problems with some in the school reform movement is that they form cults of personality around school leaders and others without fully considering whether they should even be worthy of such high regard. Just because a superintendent or principal talks the proverbial talk doesn’t necessarily mean they take the actions to match. The latest example of this thoughtlessness can be seen in New York City, where reformers are touting speculation that Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio may appoint former Baltimore chief executive officer Andres Alonso as chancellor of the traditional district if he wins next month’s general election. For reformers inside and out of the Big Apple set on edge by de Blasio’s declarations that he may effectively kibosh the expansion of charter schools if he wins office, the news about Alonso (who now holds a professorship at Harvard University’s ed school after his six-year tenure as Baltimore’s district boss) is beyond pleasing to their ears.
Your editor generally ignores rumors and alleged short lists of candidates. After all, those lists are usually little more than the hopes and dreams of campaign staffers and fundraisers, not real names actually being considered by contenders. But let’s say Alonso is truly under consideration. Your editor wonders why would de Blasio choose Alonso over anyone else? I also ask why would reformers tout him? Because Alonso has not demonstrated why the movement (or any mayor) should give him such confidence. Sure, he is a protégé of former chancellor Joel Klein, and certainly, he has engaged in high-profile efforts to address the low educational attainment among young men of all races that is the most-pernicious symptom of the nation’s education crisis. But Alonso isn’t necessarily the results-oriented school leader the Big Apple and its children need to build on the last decade of successful reform.
Alonso did achieve some success while serving as Baltimore schools chief. He successfully pushed the American Federation of Teachers’ local to agree on including student performance data in teacher evaluations, reduced the overuse of suspensions and expulsions that help put far too many kids on the path to dropping out (and fail to address the illiteracy and academic struggles that lead kids to act out in the first place), and launched an intra-district school choice effort for middle- and high school students. Alonso also proved to be the rare school leader willing to publicly expose test-cheating by three schools and hold principals accountable for the fraud; he fired two principals last year after evidence of test fraud was revealed schools over the objection of the American Federation of School Administrators affiliate. And through the Fair Student Funding weighted student finance effort, which put 80 percent of the district’s budget into the hands of principals on the ground, Alonso managed to slowly move the district away from dome of the worst aspects of the traditional district model.
As a result of Alonso’s work, Baltimore’s five-year promoting power rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) increased from 70 percent for the Class of 2007 to 80 percent for the Class of 2011, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education. The percentage of Baltimore fourth-graders performing Below Basic in math (as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) declined from 36 percent to 32 percent between 2009 and 2011. And out of school suspensions declined by 27 percent between 2006 and 2009 (the most recent years available), based on DN analysis of federal civil rights data.
Yet Alonso didn’t accomplish nearly enough to keep B’More’s children, especially young black men, off the path to economic and social despair.
The percentage of Baltimore fourth-graders reading Below Basic increased from 58 percent to 60 percent in between 2009 and 2011. For all of Alonso’s high-profile efforts to address the district’s struggles with educating young men — including an initiative funded by hedge fund billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundations — Alonso accomplished little. The percentage of young men in fourth grade who read Below Basic increased from 62 percent to 66 percent in the same period (the percentage of functionally illiterate female peers increased from 55 percent to 56 percent in the same period); 69 percent of young black men in fourth-grade eligible for subsidized school lunch read Below Basic in 20011, a two percentage point increase over 2009. Not only did Baltimore retain its place as the seventh-worst big city district (among those participating in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment) in literacy for young black men in fourth-grade (after Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit, D.C. Public Schools, Fresno, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles), it did even worse that Motown, which reduced fourth-grade illiteracy by three percentage points during the same period.
Under Alonso, Baltimore only managed to bring down the number of eighth-grade young black men reading Below Basic declined by two percentage points between 2009 and 2011, a level of decline lower than that for six other cities, including Detroit (which decreased the percentage of eighth-grade young men who were functionally illiterate by 10 percentage points). The percentage of young black eighth-grade men from college educated homes who read Below Basic proficiency increased by three percentage points (from 46 percent to 49 percent) in that period. Literacy levels weren’t much better for young black women; the percentage of young black women from college-educated homes mired in illiteracy increased by one percentage point (from 39 percent to 40 percent) in that same period.
Certainly the lack of progress isn’t all Alonso’s fault. As Dropout Nation noted earlier this year after Alonso resigned as Baltimore superintendent, it is difficult for any traditional district chief executive to overhaul operations. Big city district bosses wear out their welcome after three or four years largely because they lack the political constituencies within districts to sustain their tenures. In the case of Alonso, his longer-than-usual tenure in Baltimore was due to the structure of the district’s board which, because Maryland’s governor and the city’s mayor appoint all but one of the board seats, is more akin to the mayoral control arrangement that has made overhauls of New York City, Boston, Chicago go more successfully than to that of traditional districts, whose boards are elected, and thus, are under the influence of AFT and National Education Association affiliates. But with the board under pressure to weaken Alonso’s hand in order to keep up appearances, and the dysfunctional city government taking back control of the district (even as it struggles to handle basic quality-of-life issues such as increasing levels of crime), Alonso likely did as much as he could given the hand he was given.
At the same time, however, Alonso made plenty of mistakes of his own. Particularly in the area of improving education for young black and other men in Baltimore’s care, Alonso’s penchant for flashy projects such as an effort to use art in addressing the effects of low-quality education on young black men came at the expense of failing to provide them with intensive reading remediation and improvements in quality of literacy instruction. The series of interventions rolled out by Baltimore to address literacy — including use of the Fountas and Pinnell guided reading program sold by textbook publisher Heinemann — aren’t helping kids build up their comprehension (and become proficient and advanced in their literacy) because they are not given the challenging books and lessons focused on central concepts of their reading that they need. Alonso could have easily took steps to provide Baltimore’s children to be identified and provided with comprehensive reading instruction in order for them to get up to speed. This never happened under his watch. As a result, more of B’More’s children struggle with literacy. And for that, Alonso cannot escape blame.
These results should be more than enough for reformers to be a little more circumspect about championing Alonso for the Big Apple’s top school chieftain spot. But irrational exuberance has been at times a problem for the movement. As seen last month with the kudos given to the Houston Independent School District for winning its second Broad Prize (and the criticism of folks such as Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners and I, for daring to say that the movement shouldn’t celebrate districts for just doing their job), reformers are sometimes searching so hard for examples of success that they forget their mission: Transforming American public education so that all children can write their own stories. It is unacceptable for reformers to simply congratulate districts and other school operators for succeeding in improving graduation rates and basic literacy when society and the economy is demanding that our children gain the high-level knowledge needed for success in higher education (from traditional college to apprenticeships in high-paying blue-collar professions) and career. It is even less acceptable for the movement to tout school leaders whose past and current districts haven’t even achieved those basic levels.
While Alonso may be a favored son of the movement, he shouldn’t be the choice to lead New York City’s schools at a time when it must also undertake much-needed reforms in order to build upon the imperfect success of the last decade. Whoever becomes Big Apple mayor should take a pass on him at least for now. And school reformers must be smarter in who they choose to champion.