Policy changes necessary for Cleveland to see Baltimore-like success

The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently lifted up Baltimore City Schools as a possible model for Cleveland. In fact, Cleveland Metropolitan Schools CEO Eugene Sanders’ district transformation plan sounds remarkably similar to Baltimore’s 2008 Great Kids Great Schools Initiative, which aimed to lift student achievement, raise graduation rates, and overhaul the district via a portfolio-management style of schools.

But Cleveland has a long way to go to achieve either the reforms implemented by Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso (who earned no mention in the Plain Dealer article despite being the primary driver of reform) or the resulting achievement gains – among students in grades 3-8, the percent scoring proficient or advanced in reading on state tests has gone up twenty percentage points over the past four years (52.8 to 72.4 percent), while math proficiency levels have risen 22 points (41.5 to 63.5 percent).

Simply put, Baltimore has four policies in place that Cleveland does not.

Robust choice. Baltimore has a robust school choice climate, with an open enrollment process for middle and high school students, and transfers within the district allowed for elementary students. There are 30 charter schools, 15 “transformation” schools (which combine middle and high school around a particular theme) and 10 innovation schools. Cleveland should consider a similar open-enrollment program so as to expand intra-district choice. Further, Sanders will need to have a zero-tolerance attitude toward scenarios such as the CTU’s attempt to unionize charters.

Weighted-student funding. One of the boldest changes that Alonso has enacted is weighted-student funding, making Baltimore one of 15 major school districts utilizing WSF. Under WSF, funding amounts are determined by “weights” assigned to students based on their individual education needs (e.g., poor or limited-English proficient children get extra dollars), and funds flow directly to the school where children enroll, rather than pooling at the district level. Cleveland’s intention to expand school choice and adopt a portfolio style of school management will hinge on having a modern, flexible funding system, not an antiquated method that funds traditional schools at a greater level than schools of choice.

Building-based decision making. WSF calls for decision making authority to be devolved down to the building level. Funds flow directly to the schools where children enroll, and principals have the freedom to determine how most of those dollars are spent. In Baltimore, Alonso trimmed the size of the central district office (by $165 million), cutting non-essential positions and directing 80 percent of Baltimore’s operating funds directly to schools. If Sanders hopes to spur innovation and expects principals to achieve dramatic results, he should offer them freedom over their budgets, personnel, and curriculum. Sanders has already defended his move to force Cleveland teachers to reapply for their own positions (rather than upholding seniority-based transfers) but is being sued by the Cleveland Teachers Union. How this shakes out will be indicative of the likelihood that Sanders’ vision for the district can be realized.

Emphasis on teacher contract reforms. Seniority-based layoffs are already threatening Cleveland’s innovation schools. For the transformation plan to succeed, Sanders must fight for changes to the union contract that will protect quality teachers over seniority rules. In Baltimore, Alonso has indicated his support for reforms suggested by the National Council on Teacher Quality, including changes to teacher pay, teacher dismissal, and the school calendar. Baltimore Schools and their union are currently in the midst of negotiations, but Alonso has instituted “mutual consent” hiring (which allows principals to have a say in who they hire for their school). The district is also supportive of using student performance data to inform teacher evaluations. This is evidence that the district realizes the need to reform teacher contracts in parallel with other structural changes. This is an important lesson for Cleveland, whose district has the second-most restrictive teacher contract in the nation (according to a 2008 Fordham study) and which threatens to seriously inhibit Sanders’ plan.

Sanders’ vision for CMSD is based on good things happening elsewhere – a “portfolio of choices,” transformation of the lowest performing schools, and innovative partnerships (including collaboration with charters). This vision, however, will be difficult to translate into meaningful changes to what happens in classrooms unless leadership and the union are able to agree to some bold policy changes.

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