On August 24, the same date that Maryland was awarded 250 million dollars in Race to the Top funds to support bold education reform across the state, the Fordham Institute published a report analyzing America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform. Surprisingly, Baltimore received a “C” and was ranked 17th out of the 26 cities reviewed.
The authors of the Fordham Institute report take a very narrow view of “reform-friendliness” predicated on the assumption that the best and perhaps the only way to reform a school system is by outsourcing key district functions. My audacious idea is that we start from the premise that schools and school systems can be reformed from the inside out.
Consider a notion of reform-friendliness that measures innovative policies and practices initiated from within a district that result in better schools and outcomes for students, rather than how welcoming a city is to “non-traditional problem-solvers and solutions”. From this perspective, Baltimore is a true leader. Baltimore has created charter-like expectations and accountabilities for all of its 198 schools. Principals, in collaboration with parents and communities, manage 80% of school budgets. Baltimore’s commitment to school choice for all of its high school students and the vast majority of its middle grade students means parents and students determine which school is best for each student. Furthermore, school choice creates accountabilities for principals by aligning funding to enrollment through Fair Student Funding. Finally, for each of the past three years poor performing schools were closed and new schools were created.
Opening the debate on how we define school reform does not preclude a system from welcoming non-traditional problem-solvers and solutions. But it means these partners are brought in to support the district’s strategic objectives, not to define them. For each of the past two years over 60 percent of all new teachers hired in Baltimore came from The New Teacher Project, Teach For America and now the Urban Teacher Center. Today, over 20 percent of all Baltimore principals began their careers with New Leaders for New Schools. Baltimore is home to 29 charter schools. New schools are being created every year, many with private operators, and all with generous support from national and local foundations. Baltimore has built incredible—and sustainable—momentum around this work by actively engaging political, business, and community leaders in the process.
Much progress has been made over the past several years, but we are a long way from achieving success for all students. I am convinced however, with the district as the leading agent of change, supported by committed partners, we will create a public school system that meets the needs of every student.