A recent article in ‘Education Next,’ a journal on school reform published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School, reports that progress in the Baltimore City Schools has stalled. The root of the problem? The authors point to a central office that failed to support school leaders’ new autonomy. See the article, below, “Incomplete Reform in Baltimore: A shift in authority to school leaders falls short,” to get the full picture. – The Eds.
By Betheny Gross and Ashley Jochim
Five years ago, Baltimore City Public Schools seemed on the brink of a breakthrough. The district had been freed from mayoral control after more than a century, and a high-energy superintendent was leading bold moves to de-emphasize central administration, give schools greater autonomy, and engage families in a revitalized portfolio of educational choice.
A new school funding formula matched resources to student needs, and chronically low-performing, under-enrolled schools were closed. Citywide, enrollment had begun to stabilize after four decades of steep decline, as more families opted to enroll their children in district schools, including newly expanding charters. Suspensions were down, the graduation rate was up, and more students were proficient at grade-level work in math and reading. A new teacher evaluation system set common standards for excellence across the city.
By almost all accounts, Baltimore’s district-led portfolio system—traditional and charter school options, all authorized and managed by City Schools’ central office—was working.
But today, progress seems to have stalled. The school funding system is under legal threat, with a group of charter schools suing over alleged underfunding. Fewer than half of the principals at the heart of the decentralized reform strategy remain on the job. Bureaucratic barriers to school autonomy and improvement remain, from costly contract-driven funding obligations to middle-management practices that limit school budget flexibility. Baltimore’s leadership is in flux, with the departure of its latest superintendent in May after less than two years.
Baltimore, at least right now, is a story of incomplete reform, a stark example of the limits of a reform strategy that sought dramatic change while leaving many old political and administrative arrangements in place.
“Most of the central office staff who interacted with schools had no idea how to do their jobs differently in a new era of school accountability,” one former central office staff member said. “We did not fundamentally change how the central office operated. We cut [principals], squeezed them, and tried to strangle them. But we did not try to reinvent a new relationship between central and the schools.”
To understand the story of Baltimore’s reforms from 2007 to the present, we conducted more than a dozen interviews, reviewed district documents and press reports, and collected secondary data. Our understanding was greatly informed by talking with key observers in 2013 and again in 2015, including principals, current and former district staffers, advocacy groups, and civic leaders, whose insights are reflected below.
An Agenda for an Ailing System
For decades, Baltimore followed a familiar path for once-thriving cities: as its fortunes declined, so did its schools. For nearly a century, City Schools were under mayoral control, vulnerable to the corruption and financial mismanagement that challenged City Hall. Over time, a brisk drug trade and violent crime took hold in formerly stable neighborhoods.
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