Once promising reforms stall in Baltimore
Student performance low, principal attrition high in Charm City
June 9, 2016—What went wrong? Five years ago, Baltimore’s strategy to shift authority from the district office to school leaders was showing great promise. But recent conflict within the district over school autonomy and funding has boiled over and student performance has declined. In a new article for Education Next, Betheny Gross and Ashley Jochim of the Center on Reinventing Public Education report that Baltimore’s decentralization plan stalled at its core: the central office failed to support school leaders’ new autonomy.
Baltimore City Schools’s reform strategy hinged on closing ineffective schools while expanding choice, changing how schools are funded, and shifting authority to principals. But nearly ten years after Baltimore instituted its reforms, student performance is dismal. Baltimore’s 4th and 8th graders lag average performance in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) compared to public school students in both large cities and nationwide, with scores dropping between 2013 and 2015 (see figure below). Notably, Baltimore charter students posted higher scores than traditional public school students on the 2015 NAEP exam in both 4th and 8th grade math and reading.
In 2007, incoming superintendent Andrés Alonso implemented the Expanding Great Options (EGO) program, closing 41 of the city’s 195 schools and instituting a common performance framework for all schools. By 2013, the city had opened more than three dozen charters, which enrolled 16 percent of district students and stabilized a trend of declining enrollment in the city’s schools. The Fair Student Funding (FSF) program updated budgets by allocating funds based on a school’s student enrollment. As part of the implementation of FSF, the school district eliminated nearly 500 central office positions, cutting staff by one quarter and putting more than $160 million back into schools.
District leadership expected principals to use their autonomy to improve student achievement and imposed a strict accountability system removing principals whose schools failed to show improvement. Due to shared district costs, however, principals ultimately controlled only about 45 percent of per-pupil funds. They also lacked administrative guidance for how to exercise the budgetary control they did have. Feeling demoralized, principals left Baltimore in droves. Fewer than half of first-year Baltimore principals who started in 2007-08 were still on the job three years later.
The authors note that, while Baltimore’s strong central office made many aspects of reform possible, it failed to relinquish necessary authority to principals. “Those working in the central office to support schools must have a clear, shared understanding that principals and teachers are often better positioned to know and act on the needs of their students….To get the full benefits of a decentralized system of schools, reform leaders must make clear commitments to educators, enforce these by eliminating administrative control functions that create ambiguity, and curtail central office control of funds.”
To receive an embargoed copy of “Incomplete Reform in Baltimore: A shift in authority to school leaders falls short” or to speak with the authors, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at email@example.com. The article will be available Tuesday, June 14 on www.educationnext.org and will appear in the Fall 2016 issue of Education Next, available in print on August 29, 2016.
About the Authors: Betheny Gross is a senior research analyst and research director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), and Affiliate Faculty, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, at the University of Washington Bothell. Ashley Jochim is a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit www.educationnext.org.