However, a couple of readers (Greg is one), pointed out that there was coverage of his speech in this week's Crosscut. What is interesting is he seems the non-firebreathing, anti-union, anti-parent Michelle Rhee. He came into an incredibly poor situation:
Only 35 percent of Baltimore’s students received high-school diplomas the year before Alonso arrived. Proficiency levels as measured by standardized tests were in the cellar. Over nine years the district lost 25,000 students, dwindling from 106,540 in 1999 to 81,284 in 2008.
In the same period the district gained 1,000 staff, Alonso said. With costs rising despite continuing enrollment declines, "baseline aid from the state to the city had doubled.... It was clearly an organization not sustainable over time."
How could they lose over 25,000 students and gain 1,000 staff? Who was the superintendent before this guy?
What's interesting here is he examined the culture of the bureaucracy BEFORE he made any changes. Huge and key.
Then in 2003, Maryland began allowing charter schools. "Charters are like Cuban restaurants," said Alonso, whose family emigrated from Cuba when he was 12. "Some you don't want to go back in there again." Still, a few new ideas had been seeded, and when Alonso arrived from New York City, where he had been deputy to schools chancellor Joel Klein, he factored them into the major steps he took in Baltimore.
He also has four key concepts: leadership, choice/competition, hard choices and engage the community.
In the Baltimore system there was "an almost Biblical punitive culture about kids." To begin changing that culture, Alonso invited the wider community to help solve the dropout problem: "Come inside the tent and work on enrollment, on the issue of missing kids.” He persuaded several community-based organizations to “knock on doors of kids who dropped out last year."
And he said he advised the school board to "throw out [its] 40-point evaluation for their superintendent and use one: Are we keeping more kids? Everything needed to be about that conversation. Every molecule and atom in the district had to be bumping up together to do that one thing."
SPS? Not so much. We don't know why 25% of school-aged Seattle kids go private. We don't ask people why they leave the district. We don't ask new people why they came into the district (especially at non-entry grades). Don't know and from the looks of it, don't care.
So what did he do?
To give each school greater responsibility and shift resources accordingly, Alonso cut central office personnel by 34 percent. "Central office had to give up control so individual schools could respond," he said. The role of remaining central staff was redefined, from enforcing top-down compliance to providing support for the decisions made by each school.
Within the schools, the principals, who once controlled 3 percent of their budgets, were given control of 81 percent. Schools now have the authority to decide how time and money will be used as they hire and fire their own staff, tailor professional development to their needs, and develop the details of their own programs within broad state and federal parameters. In return for this autonomy, the individual schools are held accountable for student achievement. Alonso has fired three-quarters of the principals in the district.
Even Michelle Rhee pared down her Central Office. That's one national ed reform I'd like to see at SPS. And look how much power the principals got (without every school converting to a charter - it can be done). That Mr. Alonso fired that many principals seems scary - where do you find that many good replacements? Hmm.
He drove union compromises so that taking responsibility didn't mean ratcheting up personnel costs. He also closed 26 of the district’s 198 schools and opened several new ones, pushing for an array of schools with distinctive yet demanding programs, including charters, so that families would have more choices. And he led parents and other city stakeholders to define appropriate, consistent group roles for participating in district decision-making.
Hey, asking questions and working with the unions. There's a concept. I would even support parameters around parent and stakeholder involvement if it meant we also got consistency.
What I really love about this guy is that he is getting results but not fast and overnight because that's not the way of education. Never has been and never will be. He says:
So "there’s no playbook, and we’re not a model," said Alonso. "We are a very interesting case study for work that is deeply contextual.
But though every district is different, Alonso said, each one can ask, "What are the two or three things you can do quickly? Then take care of the larger focus over time. Everything can’t turn on a dime, but much of the work is about maintaining a sense of moving forward."
Question: is SPS moving forward? Are our economic woes (both the bad economy and self-made) blurring the lines? Do you feel your school is moving forward?