Monday, January 24, 2011

A Breath of Fresh Air on Ed Reform

I do wish I had attended the Washington Policy Center breakfast last week. One reason is the speaker was Dr. Andres Alonso, the head of Baltimore Schools. He sounds like an interesting guy and I would have liked to hear him in person.

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?


Greg Linden said...

This part is particularly worth emphasizing:

Alonso cut central office personnel by 34 percent ... The role of remaining central staff [became] ... providing support for the decisions made by each school.

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 ... hire and fire their own staff ... and develop ... programs ... Individual schools [now] are held accountable for student achievement.

Greg Linden said...

Also, Dick Lilly (who is also a former school board member) adds some history in a comment on the Crosscut article:

Decentralized, shifted control of school funds to principals ... was the course of Seattle Public Schools up until about 2003... Re-centralization of control began a little under Raj and as we all know has accelerated under Goodloe-Johnson.

If I were to pick a favorite, it would be decentralization with a strong and clear mandatory curriculum ... You set goals (what should be taught) and manage to those expectations; there's no built-in necessity for the kind of central-office control ... currently seen in Seattle. For example, if we set out a list of courses that high school students have to take within their first two years, how many people at central office do you need to insure the schools do it?

JvA said...

How can we steal him from Baltimore?

To your question about finding good principals -- I wonder if you might get a plethora of excellent resumes if you mentioned in the call for applicants that the winning candidates would get to control 81% of their school budget, and would generally be supported in their decisions how best to help their students succeed. Maybe they got applications from around the country.

Thanks for sharing this.

dan dempsey said...

I think that this decentralization plan with power to the principals is drastically needed. The principals need to be accountable to an individual board of trustees with a board for each school.

I am continually amazed at the Central Admin's choices.... These folks should not be allowed to ruin the district just because the Board has no clue.


Looking at the State ... is hardly encouraging at the moment ... the adoption of the Common Core standards will increase emphasis on top down. Funding should be increased to schools and decreased to Centralized Authority.

Oppose HB 1443 .....

Make a Phone Call in opposition to HB 1443. It will only take one minute.

Please call the HB1443 Hotline 1-800-562-6000 and voice your opposition to HB1443.

Every call matters.

You don't need to explain anything. You need only say you are against it and give your contact information.

anonymous said...

"To your question about finding good principals -- I wonder if you might get a plethora of excellent resumes if you mentioned in the call for applicants that the winning candidates would get to control 81%"

And maybe you could offer principals job stability too. No more musical chair transfers. Only move a principal when absolutely necessary or when they request it.

Anonymous said...

Quoting from Steve Sundquist on the West Seattle Blog, about an hour ago:

"(4) Central staff cut: this particular question seems to have become an urban legend for some. The district did in fact cut approximately 85 positions from central office as it promised, and is now close to the averages of other Puget Sound districts in a number of central office expense metrics. More central office cuts are a certainty to meet the budget targets of this next fiscal year."

That's a pretty good accomplishment for one year... 85 highly paid managerial people isn't peanuts and I'm sure Steve expects to make even more of this same kind of hard executive and managerial reductions, where it can be justified.

I know some people have waved their arms about not all the 85 positions being cut, but those people still haven't proven their unproven assertions, and I'm certain that Steve does have the full inside information to back it up.

Guy in WS

Melissa Westbrook said...

Oh Guy, I can certainly prove some of it and so can Meg Diaz.

One, there is Central Administration and Central office (which are different things to OSPI). Saying you cut 85 from Central is not what you think it might be.

Also, the Executive Directors positions were called something else, then called cuts and then promptly renamed and rehired. Those were NOT cuts and named as such.

Oh, and they got rid of the guy who fixed the blinds.

Yes, it can be proven and if you want the info, look up Meg's charts on this very blog.

Steve has no inside information that no one else has because if he does, well, that would be a problem because all of this is supposed to be public info.

Central Mom said...

Ahhh Guy. If the cuts to Central Office had been on par with expectations, then why does DeBell, the veteran on the school board, and a business owner himself, say that $10-12 Mil more cuts still need to come from Central Office , based on projected state shortfalls next year. And why does he want to see yet another 2 percent cut in Central Office staff to bring us in line with "like" districts?

It is because he is, to use a cliche, older but wiser in the ways of Central Admin.

Steve is a nice enough guy but he, a high-level ex exec from the world of business, appears to be blind, at least for now, in this area.

The direness of the situation from state funding means an awful choice next year between long-term planning and classroom services. That is the bottom line. Both focuses have their merits. But when the rubber hits the road, and especially in light of the slack money management at HQ, classrooms need priority funding from the tiny pot of $$ coming our way. The majority of the board appears to be waking up and getting it. I might even put Carr into that category, and that would be a much-awaited shift in thinking.

As others have opined, Steve, Peter and Harium appear to remain open questions. Community input can and SHOULD matter.

Eric M said...

Here's a great little archival video featuring the oh-so-knowledgable Steve Sundquist, from the time the Superintendent laid off all the teachers, then had to retract via an $18,000 certificated mailing. You watch this and tell me how willing Steve Sundquist is willing to make up fabrications out of whole cloth. He's definitely got the inside information.


I also recall Mr. Sundquist on KUOW explaining that 99.8% of teachers voting NO-CONFIDENCE was just 'cuz they were unhappy with their contract. Not exactly, Steve. We voted no-confidence because we have no confidence.

He is one of our Superintendent's biggest cheerleaders, and many of us will be working to unseat him in November's election.

Dorothy Neville said...

Steve isn't on Audit and Finance committee now, and not in the recent past. He has no proof of the 85 job cuts. Also, Guy is assuming that the "cuts" were highly paid managerial people. Nope.

At most there were 45 job cuts and 26 new grant funded positions. Ask Peter. He swears that yes there were some cuts, but he also admits that many of those people were too good to let go, so they bumped other people (?? his words) and also some were brought back but paid for with grant money. So the sum total of job cuts looks like 45 regularly funded positions may have been cut but 26 new grant funded positions were filled. And the cuts were not to senior or managerial staff. No way, no sir. So, where did we get an extra $1.6M in grants for the new FTEs? (that's lowballing it, assuming 60K per FTE including taxes and benefits)

Look for yourself right here.

Show it to Michael, he sighs. Show it to Sherry, she looks confused. Show it to Peter and he raises his voice in denial. Please show it to Steve and see what he does.

And everyone, remember Steve is the board member that looked the TV camera in the eye and said that "What I know is that a letter has not been sent."

Maureen said...

Guy, This doc, Central Non-Grant FTE Changes, shows that 83 employees were moved from Central Administration category to a Teaching category. Only two were let go. This is why many people believe that the central admin layoffs never really happened. It's linked to from the Budget page on the District website.

driveby linker said...

The West Seattle Blog thing.

dan dempsey said...

Hey Guy ... you think Steve has a handle on facts.

Please don't get me started on Mr. Deception.

More important action is needed now.

Please oppose more damage to our schools.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Ah, the start of the election season and the incumbents are trying to get their ducks in a row. Unfortunately for them, this is unlikely to be a genteel affair.

Steve better get that wording right because there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. I note he is trying to minimize the retirement party issue. Trying to say we are doing better on maintenance.

This should be very interesting.

Maureen said...

Are the Board members starting to actively campaign? I walked in at the end of Sherry's Sat. meeting and I thought I saw a stack of campaign posters, but I'm not sure. Has anyone actually declared that they are running?

Melissa Westbrook said...

No, no one has said they are running but it certainly looks like people are positioning themselves. Steve just became Board President; think he's going to give that up? Nope.

Anonymous said...

If you have an opinion about the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (HB 1443) in WA State, it only takes a 5 min. phone call to 1-800-562-6000.

Thanks for the link Dan.

-Math mom