What kind of person does it take to turn around a large, urban school district? Many people say it takes someone from the local community who has the trust of parents and students. Others will say you need someone from the business community who is well versed in running a large organization. The past couple of years have seen CEOs and superintendents of school systems become celebrities like never before. While they all want to make positive change in urban schools, they have done it in different ways.
Probably the most famous education reformer is Michelle Rhee. Michelle Rhee was named head of D.C. Public Schools in 2007. Three years later, she quit after D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, a major supporter of her policies, lost his reelection battle in an election that was seen by many as a referendum on Rhee.
Rhee’s tenure was plagued by controversy, with conflict of interest concerns over her firing of the principal of her daughter’s school, cheating on standardized testing, and a poor perception of her amongst the local community.
Many of the local teachers, principals, and residents of D.C. saw her as an outsider parading through the city making sweeping changes. Appearing on magazine covers with a broom, claiming to clean up school systems, shows arrogance about the reality of firing school employees.
In some ways, Cathie Black’s tenure over New York City Public Schools was similar. A former head of Hearst Magazine, Black seemed like an outsider who was lost in NYC’s public schools. She stepped down as chancellor after an embarrassing 95 days.
In contrast, Baltimore City Schools’ CEO Dr. Andres Alonso has been able to make changes to Baltimore schools without the controversy of Rhee or Black. He worked with the Baltimore City Teachers Union to rewrite the teacher contract. He has presided over increases in graduation rate and decreases in the dropout rates, although these metrics aren’t perfectly indicative of student achievement. While he has had his fair share of testing controversy, he hasn’t had nearly the same problems as Rhee or Black and has not been nearly as divisive.
The children of our failing urban school districts don’t need celebrity reformers; they need more people like Dr. Alonso. He has quietly managed to make changes in a district long-plagued by failure without alienating the local community. After all, it’s hard to make real change to urban school districts after you’ve been shown the door.
Disclosure: The author of this Op-Ed worked in Baltimore City Public Schools from 2009-2011.