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Leading for change in urban education systems
By / May 15, 2015 /   Loading Disqus...

In his first six years as a public school teacher, no administrator stepped foot into the classroom of Dr. Andres Alonso to evaluate his practice or provide helpful feedback. Now, according to Alonso, that situation has changed: schools and school districts are investing in supporting new teachers like never before. It’s one of the things that gives Dr. Alonso, former CEO of the Baltimore City Public Schools and current Professor of Practice at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, great optimism for the future of public education in urban America.

Last week, we were pleased to welcome Dr. Alonso to the Providence Career & Technical Academy to join approximately 100 educators and civic leaders for a conversation on urban education as part of our Community Conversations in 2015 series. Drawing from his experience as a classroom teacher, district administrator and Harvard University professor, Dr. Alonso led a wide ranging and thought provoking conversation centered around three big lessons from his time in Baltimore.

First, Dr. Alonso stressed the importance of treating teachers like professionals, an effort codified in an unconventional labor agreement reached with the Baltimore Teachers Union in 2010. This agreement replaced automatic “step” increases based on credentials and longevity with a more holistic approach to the supporting and rewarding of effective teaching practice that includes peer evaluations, measures of student growth and additional responsibilities like supervising after-school activities or writing curriculum. The goals of the system, according to Dr. Alonso, are to give teachers ownership of their career progression, to allow newer teachers to earn more money faster, and to create a salary structure that honors the incredible difficulties of teaching in urban school systems. Indeed, today’s teachers in Baltimore are eligible to earn over $100,000 annually, the highest salary available for teachers in the State of Maryland.

Second, Dr. Alonso emphasized the urgent responsibility of school systems to hold young people in the system by reducing out-of-school suspensions and high school dropout rates. When Alonso became CEO in 2007, half of all students in Baltimore public schools were dropping out of the system before graduating. Over his six years as CEO, the school system cut that number in half while at the same time reducing suspensions and reversing a 40 year decline in district enrollment.  How did they do it?  In part, by granting schools greater autonomy to innovate while maintaining high standards for educational outcomes, an approach more commonly associated with public charter schools than traditional school systems.  “I found the dividing line between charter schools and traditional neighborhood schools illusory,” says Dr. Alonso.  “What matters most is what is going on in the buildings. If one advantage of charter schools is the ability to reinvent what school means for adults and kids, then that’s a flexibility that should be the norm for traditional schools, not the privileged few.”

Finally, Dr. Alonso spoke to the need for local communities to own change processes in improving public schools. School reform initiatives that come from the top down won’t last, according to Dr. Alonso; superintendents can communicate needs, but parents and families have to demand changes for improvements to last.  In Baltimore, Dr. Alonso credits the active involvement of parents and families with the successful launch of a historic, $1 billion citywide school renovation campaign.  But, according to Dr. Alonso, examples like these are unfortunately the exception, and not the rule – a phenomenon Dr. Alonso calls the Achilles Heel of school improvement processes nationwide.

Despite the many complexities in improving outcomes in urban education, Dr. Alonso sees reason for great optimism. Surveys of student achievement in America’s large urban districts – including Baltimore city schools – show students closing gaps and gaining ground. By empowering teachers and school leaders with greater measures of autonomy, maintaining a relentless focus on equity and building community trust, Dr. Alonso sees a promising, if challenging, path forward for America’s urban schools.

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