Compare and contrast

Sep 1, 2010 at 12:00 am

When asked to compare his school district with Detroit's, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso lets loose a little laugh and tries to step around the question.

"That's a stigma we're trying to shake," he says.

In some ways, though, the comparison is unavoidable.

The two districts are similar in size: Detroit had about 85,000 students enrolled last semester, while Baltimore has nearly 83,000. And those student bodies are much alike in makeup: More than 87 percent of those attending Baltimore schools are African-American; in Detroit 83 percent of the students are black. And both have a high percentage of students who come from low-income families.

Likewise, both districts serve cities that, because of high crime rates and recent problems with former mayors convicted of criminal charges, are often negatively portrayed in the national media. 

What makes the comparison particularly instructive for Detroiters, though, is what's different: Baltimore schools appear to be experiencing a turnaround, improving graduation rates and state and national test scores, while Detroit's schools are setting record lows.

Baltimore's dropout rate has declined by 33 percent in the past three years to 6.2 percent while Detroit's dropout rates sit somewhere above 10 percent at the most conservative estimates — and the most extreme say it's from 50 percent to 75 percent. 

And when it comes to the Department of Education's 2009 NAEP National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores, Baltimore's low-income, African-American students were in the middle of the large-city pack, while Detroit's were last in every category. 

Meanwhile, as Detroit schools continue to lose students at a rate of about 10,000 a year, Baltimore, after enduring decades of decline, has seen enrollment increase in each of the last three years. At least part of that success is attributed to a declining dropout rate.

And experts are taking notice of Baltimore's upswing.

As the publication Education Week reported last October: "Three years after Maryland's top education official threatened to take over or close several low-performing Baltimore schools, Mr. Alonso presides over an 83,000-student district that has moved out of the bottom academically and gained momentum around raising student achievement."

To be sure, the academic improvements among Baltimore's students amount to small steps. But, as Alonso told Education Week, even incremental progress in the district has major implications, saying "the psychological impact of no longer being at the bottom has been very powerful here. For so long, people believed Baltimore would always be last, no matter how hard they worked."

What have they done to improve performance while Detroit's schools continue to fall behind? And can the steps taken in Baltimore be used in Detroit?

Forced change

The story of Baltimore's turnaround begins in the 1990s, when Maryland became the first state to mandate standardize testing for its public schools. The data substantiated a widely held belief: That Baltimore's students were well behind their peers in the rest of the state. 

With solid evidence in, the Maryland branch of the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the state in 1994 on behalf of the city's students and parents, claiming that the failure to provide an "adequate" education violated the state's constitution.

According to Maryland ACLU attorney Bebe Verdery, who was involved in that lawsuit, the state initially responded by blaming the district for poor management, and the district responded by claiming the state didn't provide adequate funding."

In the view of the ACLU, both the state and the school district were at fault. "We said on behalf of the parents and students that it was both of them," Verdery says.

The lawsuit resulted in action.

"We got the state to acknowledge that it too has a part in providing adequate education to Baltimore students," Verdery explains. 

In 1997, a consent decree was entered into authorizing a restructuring of the district and an increase in state funding. It was also understood that the lawsuit could be revived if the state attempted to cut back on its financial commitments.

As far as restructuring, a hybrid system was established that allowed for the governor of Maryland and Baltimore's mayor to share control of the district by appointing members of the school board instead of having them elected by the city's voters, as had previously been the case.

The appointed board members were then responsible for selecting the district's superintendent.

Another part of the agreement required the state to increase funding to Baltimore City Public Schools by $230 million over five years. The deal included conducting an evaluation at the end of five years to determine the effectiveness of the new approach.

In addition, the Maryland Legislature, in the spring of 1999, established the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence. More commonly known as the Thornton Commission — having taken on the name of its chair, political scientist and Howard University Professor Alvin Thornton — the group determined in 2002 that an additional $1.8 billion would need to be phased into the state's education budget between 2002 and 2007 "to provide a constitutionally adequate education in every Maryland public school," according to the Maryland ACLU. 

The state Senate responded to the recommendation by authorizing a $1.3 billion increase statewide over six years. In essence, the new law, called the Thornton Funding Bill, required the state to increase funding for all at-risk schools — rural and urban. Baltimore's share of the increase amounted to an additional $258 million — on top of the previously allocated $230 million — going into its school district's coffers over a six-year period ending in 2007.

A key aspect of the approach taken in Maryland is recognition of the fact that it is simply more costly to obtain the same levels of achievement in some districts than it is in others. Spreading money equally throughout a state, using a per-pupil funding formula as Michigan does, fails to take into account the difficulties faced by districts with high numbers of students who come from low-income families.

Michael A. Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University's Teachers College, has described the issue this way:

"Instead of dealing with equal funding concepts and complex property tax reforms, the adequacy approach allows courts to focus on the concrete issues of what resources are needed to provide the opportunity for an adequate education to all students, and the extent to which those resources are actually being provided."

To date, 27 "adequacy" lawsuits have been filed against states since the first one was brought against Kentucky in 1989, with 22 of them resulting in changes in the way schools are funded. 

The failure to recognize and address the adequacy issue is one of the criticisms leveled at Michigan's Proposal A, a ballot measure approved by the state's voters in 1994.

According to Robert Floden, co-director of the Michigan State University Education Policy Center, the proposal attempted to centralize school funding by relying primarily on the state sales tax instead of property taxes to fund school districts. 

The problem with the approach before 1994 is that, in terms of funding, it left low-income districts with reduced property values trailing behind more prosperous districts. However, according to critics, a major flaw with Prop. A is that, although money raised for schools through sales taxes flows through the state and is dispersed equally through all districts based on the per-pupil formula, it fails to fully take into account the fact that it costs more to educate some students than it does others.

"It doesn't address the distinctive challenges of different districts that educate low-income and high-risk children," says David Arsen, a professor of education administration at Michigan State University. 

Also, as has been seen in recent years, Prop. A created a funding system that is susceptible to significant shortfalls during economic downturns such as the one Michigan has been going through. Simply put, when the people of Michigan buy less, school funding overall is reduced.

Consequently, any attempt to increase funding for a district such as Detroit — which has the burden of trying to educate high numbers of students from low-income families— is going to be met with opposition from districts that are already failing to make ends meet because of budget shortfalls that are hitting everyone.

In short, as Arsen explains, "There is no political momentum in that direction."

More than money

Other than receiving a massive influx of state funding, what else has Baltimore's public school system been doing that's allowed it to begin making the sort of turnaround that is so badly needed in Detroit?

Among other things is this: It has found stability at the top.

Until Alonso was hired in June 2007, the district was experiencing the same sort of musical-chair leadership that has plagued Detroit, which has had three different superintendents and a state-appointed financial manager running the show since 2006.

In Baltimore, a succession of six different people held the top job in the 10 years before Alonso's arrival. 

Entering his fourth year on the job, Alonso has stirred a significant amount of controversy during his tenure. He's been described as arrogant, bold, impatient and demanding.

Several people interviewed for this article characterized him as a "game-changer" who wasted little time shaking up the district. Since he's taken control, he's replaced about 40 percent of the principals and eliminated more than 450 central office positions, according to an Education Week article.

"I would say he is hated by some, but liked by most others," says Bonnie Legro of the Abell Foundation, which focuses its efforts on helping Baltimore's "disenfranchised." Efforts to improve the city's schools are a high priority for the foundation.

Legro is among those who describe Alonso as a "game-changer."

He's certainly left no doubt about where the responsibility for success or failure lies.

Among other things, he insisted that members of the school board be barred from micromanaging the district. As The Baltimore Sun reported in the weeks after he assumed the job, Alonso insisted that his contract contain a clause that prohibits individual board members from interfering with day-to-day operation of the district.

"Unlike other superintendents we've had, Alonso is much more impatient and demanding," the ACLU's Verdery says. "Sometimes being impatient doesn't work, but in Baltimore it does."

Previous superintendents attempted to change the system by building on what had been put in place previously, says Verdery. Alonso, who came to the United States from Cuba as a child and went on to earn a law degree from Harvard, came to the job insisting that small-step changes would not suffice.

He brought a "a shift in ratcheting up expectations," says Vedery.

When he arrived, Alonso created a district of choice — where high schools within the city compete with one another to draw students graduating from middle school.

Detroit uses a similar approach, except that it is significantly more limited in scope. DPS spokeswoman Kish Verdusco explains that, unlike the completely wide-open approach taken in Baltimore, the options for Detroit students are constrained by geographic boundaries. For example, a student living on the east side can't attend a west side school, she says. (This summer, DPS allowed parents to select schools anywhere in the city, Verdusco says, but the city did not provide transportation and the district has no plans to extend this geographically boundless enrollment into next year.)

A system that features "no-zone high schools," Alonso says, forces schools — much like universities — to provide the best education and incentives possible to keep their enrollment up. Failure to do so can result in lackluster schools being shuttered.

"It provides students with unlimited access to schools in the city, and it makes sure that schools really satisfy their customers," Legro says. 

To help make sure students have access to whatever schools they desire, the district has an agreement with the city's municipal bus system to provide transportation.

Rachel Durham, an assistant research scientist with the Baltimore Education Consortium at Johns Hopkins University, says it is still too early to fully gauge the effectiveness of the educational changes being made by Alonso.

One obstacle to making an accurate evaluation is that fact that students now are taking a different state achievement test than the one previously used. 

"In other words," she explains, "we have no absolute measure to compare achievement in 2002 to achievement in 2010.

"In my opinion, it will take more than three years to determine whether Dr. Alonso's specific reforms are playing a role and how."

However, changing the direction of a school district, especially one as large as Baltimore's, is an inherently slow endeavor.

"Often, the public expects to see immediate results in student outcomes following a policy change," says Durham, "but since education is a cumulative process, each year's progress builds on prior years' — and often gains are evident only after five or more years of continuous, faithful implementation of reform."

But Verdery contends that since 1997 — the year funding increases mandated by the ACLU began — Baltimore's state test scores have showed slow improvement regardless of whether the tests have changed.

"Are we where we want to be? Not by a long shot," she says. "But there have been gains made."

"The increased funding is the fundamental factor that led to change," she says, being careful to also credit Alonso for the changes he is making.

As she points out, money alone isn't enough. Effective leaders who can inspire and implement change are also needed.

Back to the money

What seems conclusive is that the combined effects of reforms that began in the late 1990s are helping produce the improvements that were hoped for.

A 2008 study by MGT America, a public-sector consulting firm, found that "for every $1,000 of increase in per pupil expenditures ... the proficiency gaps in both reading and math were closed by 4 percent at the elementary school level and 8 percent at the middle school level."

Despite the evidence that struggling districts can be improved by well-aimed funding increases, there is no talk in Lansing about allocating more money to districts with large numbers of students from low-income families, says Floden at the MSU Education Policy Center, which advises the state on education policy.

He says, "All districts are strapped for cash." 

With the pie shrinking for everyone, it is understandable no one wants to take an even smaller piece in order to help fund improvements in some other district, no matter how much that other district might be struggling.

"We know that improving achievement among children from disadvantaged family backgrounds, such as many of those overrepresented in Baltimore and Detroit public schools, requires a greater amount of resources than for the average middle-class child, who has greater access to educationally beneficial resources in their home environment," says Durham, the researcher at Johns Hopkins.

"Thus I would conclude that Detroit's students could undoubtedly benefit from an increase in resources — or perhaps a greater share of the state's resources — given the economic circumstances that their families face."

Robert Guttersohn is a Metro Times editorial intern. Contact him at [email protected]