Bidding Farewell to Andrés A. Alonso

Issue: 

Bidding Farewell to Andrés A. Alonso

Photo Source: www.gse.harvard.edu
Photo Source: www.gse.harvard.edu

In 2006, when I was applying for teaching jobs in Baltimore City, I was alarmed to find that the district was without a Superintendent. I would sit in the offices of various schools reading bulletin boards while awaiting interviews. That sticky July, two years before the Great Recession plunged so many into desperate joblessness, they were crowded with notices advertising open positions. Every time I saw the one advertizing the very helm of our ship, I’d get a little jittery. That’s a lot of money they’re offering; I wonder who’s going to take it.

Soon I was swept off my feet by the roller coaster of being a first year teacher. Honestly, I had no idea who the CEO was, or even that their title wasn’t Superintendent. It didn’t matter. My school was functioning fairly well, my classroom was the laboratory that every first year teacher’s classroom is, and my students weren’t doing any better or worse because of the CEO.

So the next year, when I heard they had found a full-time CEO, I didn’t think anything more of it. And when I heard Andrés A. Alonso (AAA) cut over 300 jobs from the central office in order to send more money to schools, I couldn’t really argue with that. I liked the idea of decentralization and greater autonomy for schools. I had no idea that autonomy was the one requirement Alonso had insisted upon in his teaching and then in his academic leadership positions. (By the way, if you want to read the single most comprehensive bio of him that I have found, follow that last link. Fawning, for sure, but it paints a vivid picture.)

This translated into school-based budgeting. In 2007, BCPSS per-student funding was around $13,000 annually. Principals controlled about $90 of that, or less than .01%.By the end of that first year, Alonso announced that he would turn over at least $5,000, or well over a third, of each student’s funds to their school. On average, $9,000 of per-pupil funding would “follow the student.”

Those older and wiser than I smelled a rotten egg. But I love autonomy, and I thought trusting principals and local school communities to know their own needs was noble. I still believe that. However, that wasn’t the full story.

My first inkling that something was wrong came when my school ran out of toilet paper mid year. No one had really trained principals in budgeting, and our wonderful, experienced principal had drawn on what she’d learned in decades in the Baltimore City Schools when she created our budget. However, since she had never been responsible for purchasing the bathroom supplies before that year, she had no frame of reference for how much she would need. According to an article by Advocates for Children and Youth, when asked about this strategy by a City Council member, Alonso replied "If you can trust a principal with 400 kids but not with a spreadsheet, it doesn't compute." At the time, this seemed a lighthearted glimpse into a possible problem with decentralization. I had no idea Baltimore City Public Schools had gotten an honorary mention in the Reason Foundation’s 2008 Annual Privatization Report.

The Reason Foundation, is a libertarian think tank which drafts some legislation for the once-unknown, now-loathed American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. But more of their influence comes from their television network, which features charismatic comedian Drew Carey, amongst others, and which peddles their beliefs to the masses.

A quick look at sourcewatch.org shows us that the infamous Koch Brothers are some of their biggest funders, and that David Koch sits on their Board as a Trustee.

Page 70 of the Privatization Report (P. 77 of the PDF) describes AAA’s decentralization efforts, which has come to be termed “Fair Student Funding,” thusly:

Principals are absorbing many responsibilities and funding decisions that the central office used to handle, from overseeing janitorial services to determining class size. As Alonso has said repeatedly at principals meetings, “this isn’t Christmas.” ... Principals will use the new formula to develop their own school spending plans, based on enrollment projections for the 2008-09 year. Principals are expected to gather community input as they use their discretionary spending power to craft budgets that meet students’ needs. They will control class size, textbook purchasing and whether to keep positions from assistant principals to hall monitors. If they want an art class or an after-school program, they must rearrange their budgets to make it happen.

...In addition, the school board will vote on an accountability structure defining the goals principals must meet with their newfound power and the sanctions they will face if they fall short.

Clearly, this shows the decentralization plan in a different light. Rather than giving real autonomy to schools, rather than making students, parents and teachers responsible for a schools “goals” and the “sanctions” they may face for not meeting those goals, these decisions are still left up to the Board. To be fair, a six-member team made up of parents and community stakeholders is supposed to have some input into the principal’s evaluation, but in my experience these teams have not had much real power.

At the same time, Alonso had worked out a deal to offer $20,000 bonuses to Principals for meeting the goals of their schools. This carrot came along with the stick of significant loss of job security for district principals. In a 2008 interview, Alonso indicated his intention to take that a few steps further, stating that he “will advocate for teacher merit pay down the line.”

Of course, one consequence of these policies has been unprecedented principal turnover rates. The article linked here describes nine schools without principals assigned to them less than three weeks before the start of the 2011-12 school year. In August of 2012, less than a week before the start of the next year, an inside source at North Ave told me there were at least 20 schools still without leadership assigned.

There appears, then, to be a disconnect: if principal autonomy is all-important, if we’re going to gear each school around a principal’s vision, doesn’t that principal need more than a week to develop their vision, get a sense of the school they’re moving into, and find their footing?

Perhaps he doesn’t understand this reality because he was never a principal.

Many short bios of Alonso’s life have been published in the days since he declared his intent to resign. I will not repeat them. He has lived a fascinating life, but you can read about it elsewhere. All accounts agree that he taught very well for twelve years, became intensely, personally involved with his students, even legally adopted one of his students, and then suddenly left the job to enter Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Doctoral program. He was officially unqualified for this program, never having served as a principal, but was granted a waiver.

Coming out of this program, he served as a Chief of Staff for the Deputy Chancellor of Teaching and Learning before moving into the position of Deputy Chancellor in the massive New York City Public School System. While he was lauded by Joel Klein, the Deputy Chancellor under whom he served, for his ability to quickly diagnose how best to help a school, I have been unable to find any reports from teachers in New York extolling his virtues.

The fact that the current reform movement is so robustly populated by people who took unconventional paths, and people who seem to be answering to corporate donors, research institutions, politicians and bureaucrats rather than children and communities, is at the heart of many of the problems now plaguing our schools.

I have spoken with several teachers in the few days since we received word that Alonso would be leaving us. None mentioned feeling the pride that congressman Elijah Cummings expresses on his official website. I found it telling that very few were willing to have their names listed with their comments. There is a heightened sense of fear amongst teachers, and even the mildly critical comments teachers made could result in backlash. Baltimore has not yet seen the type of attacks on tenured teachers that Alonso helped to execute while working for Joel Klein in New York. But we all know these attacks are possible.

The few teachers willing to use their names were those who feel strongly connected to their identity as Union Members. Bill Bleich is the Building Representative for the Baltimore Teacher’s Union at Polytechnic Highschool. He has taught in Baltimore City for thirty-eight years, has spoken out many times, felt retribution many times, and worked, using the good old fashion organizing model of unionism, to save his job time and time again. An excellent teacher and a well-read community activist, He helped me get some perspective on Baltimore’s education history.

He explained that, through the 1960’s, Baltimore’s schools were largely populated by white children. From the 1940s through the late 60s, 20-40% of the city’s budget went to the schools, and BCPSS was the 4th best funded school district in the State of Maryland. However, after Dr. King was killed in April of 1968 and rioting broke out across the country and in Baltimore, some in real estate started scaring white families out of their homes in the cities, selling them bigger houses in newly created suburbs. As the white families left, Black families bought houses in the city that had previously been unavailable to them.

This change in the composition of Baltimore’s neighborhoods and schools took place against the backdrop of racial tension that was being driven underground but growing strong roots. By 1974 the city schools were populated mostly by Black students, and per pupil funding had fallen from 4th in the state to 21st. Now, in 2013, 88% of the students in Baltimore are Black and the city spends around 12% of its budget on our schools.

Bleich explained that parents and teachers were increasingly frustrated and angry about this obvious reflection of the city’s priorities. He posited the interesting theory that Baltimore’s superintendents have been a string of “high paid fall guys. Things are bad so they bring in a new Super. Parents’ expectations go up for a while, which masks the realities of educational genocide, then when people realize that nothing’s any better, they blame the Super, get rid of ‘em.”

While he appreciates Alonso’s willingness to stay longer than the average two-to-three years that most Baltimore Superintendents have lasted, he doesn’t see significant difference in the program. Alonso has been much lauded for raising test scores, reducing the dropout rate, and raising rates of attendance and graduation. However, Bleich and others spoke of new policies being implemented which mask the realities of our schools, rather than change them.

For example, in the middle of last year, teachers were told we could no longer record a grade below a 50 in the fourth quarter. We already had policies in place prohibiting recording grades in earlier quarters as less than 45 or 50; these have some rhyme and reason-- if a student misses the first quarter of school, and receives a grade of zero, they would have to get 80s or better for the entire rest of the year in order to pass. While many would say that’s fair-- that students should have to work extra hard to catch up if they’ve lagged or missed school-- there is also a good argument to be made for letting young people recover from their mistakes.

So, however it may appear to differ from Alonso’s tough talk about not making excuses for children, it seemed reasonable to many of us to give these breaks early in the year.

However, there is no practical reason not to give students the grade they earn fourth quarter. If a student has done reasonably well throughout the year, they should have to continue to do so. And if a student gets Cs and Ds all year, they should definitely have to work at the end of the year to maintain their grades. Indeed, many teachers (myself included, but I got the idea from Mr. Bleich) saved complicated research projects for the last quarter, knowing that students who had missed things early in the year could learn a great deal from these hands-on projects, and that students who had been working faithfully would still be obliged to complete them.

When this policy was changed, that went out the window. Now, students with high D averages can skip every class session in the library, do no research, turn in nothing, and receive a 50 for the quarter which will not significantly hurt their average, and will not cause them to fail, but will leave them woefully unprepared for college.

This is only one of several tricks which have been implemented to distort the realities of our childrens’ school lives. Principals are being reprimanded for suspending violent students, teachers are accepting sub-par work because our evaluations are linked to our pass rates, and seniors who fail classes now have an extra week in which to somehow make up all the work they missed for a year.

Bleich sees these strategies as part of a larger context. He believes that smaller classes are the best way to improve the schools, but recognizes that as an expensive option. He believes that government and corporations want to keep education funding low so that they have more money for war and imperialism, and sees the corporate reform movement as a means to that end.

Many teachers did not have such a big picture view, but were still well aware that things in Baltimore have been heading down a strange path. And while few were willing to disclose their names, many were happy to talk under the condition of anonymity.

One spoke of a new principal coming in to a school and promoting a sizeable chunk of the teaching staff to administrative roles. This move, along with shrinking the staff overall, lead to almost doubling of class size in the last two years. “You have a whole lot of people who could be teaching the children,” the teacher explained, “but they’re doing other things. And the children are paying the price.”

When asked whether they thought Fair Student Funding was actually more fair for students, the teacher scoffed.“You have people who haven’t spent enough time in schools, but also don’t have real business training. There’s a recipe for disaster for you.”

A National Board Certified teacher expressed their belief that Alonso “must have had generally good intentions,” but felt “he was overly empowered to run roughshod over schools and their families, implementing experimental, market-based, corporate-style reforms that directly contradict the truly humanizing essence of real teaching and learning.”

One sentiment which has been shared by many teachers is that, while we are being held to ever harsher levels of accountability, those at the top can walk away when the heat gets turned up. One teacher expressed the idea that “his shortened tenure, after promising ten years, demonstrates how the work of teaching and learning have become less family-friendly. AAA demanded much of himself and those who worked for him, and that workload increases with each new year and new mandate... As AAA's departure shows, not even he--the man who demanded so much rapid change and extra work--could keep up with the pace.”

Of course, his hasty departure could also be linked to the possible eruption of the cheating scandal that mired Baltimore’s reputation in the middle of his reign, resulting in a decidedly centralized decision to outlay over half a million dollars--$320,000 to deter cheating and another $275,000 on forensic research of the cases of alleged fraud--to begin to clear our name. But a teacher I spoke with said that they found hard evidence of cheating at another school and reported it several times before it was investigated. They said that while they have experienced retribution because of their whistleblowing, the Assistant Principal who oversaw the majority of that cheating was promoted, and that the school is still not under heavy scrutiny..

Now, Beverly Hall, Alonso’s Superintendent during the last half of his decade of teaching in Newark, NJ, and another former Deputy Chancellor of Teaching and Learning in New York City, who gave him a favorable recommendation when he set his sights on Baltimore, was recently released from Fulton County Jail in Georgia after being indicted in a similar cheating scandal in Atlanta. And unlike the massive cheating scandal uncovered years ago in Michelle Rhee’s DC schools, Atlanta’s Hall is not a darling of the reform movement, she’s an immigrant who’s proven herself adept at navigating the bureaucracies of American public education.

It may be that Alonso is wondering, as the Baltimore Principal’s Union demands he pay back tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses he “earned” during the cheating scandal, which side of the fence he’ll fall on. As Bruce Dixon of the Black Agenda Report points out, race certainly plays a factor in who takes the fall in a case like this, but the fact that some privatizers are people of color does not mean they deserve our support.

At a press conference last week, Alonso announced his decision to leave, saying "I have no regrets. I feel that if I remained I’d have personal regrets that I'd never be able to live with."

I don’t believe that Andres Alonso is an evil overlord, trying to ruin education in Baltimore. It seems that we’re missing a very key piece of the puzzle: what got him out of the classroom in Newark, where it seems he was doing real good, into Harvard’s superintendent training program? And where will he turn up next? We should keep watching him as a Trustee for the Carnegie Foundation for the advancement of Teaching, as a Professor of Practice at Harvard, and as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board.

More importantly, what’s next for Baltimore? For next year, his Chief of Staff, Tisha Edwards will step into the role of CEO. Some feel she is not qualified to manage the school system, and the board is conducting a search for a more long-term replacement.

According to Sinclair Lane Elementary’s BTU Building Rep Alan Rebar, “Personalities are irrelevant. The next CEO will continue the fake education reform agenda. Teachers, students, and parents who are not ready to challenge that on day one will be caught off guard. The near future, and the long term, of Baltimore Schools depends on facing this reality.”

Iris Kirsch

Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.