Leadership Profile: Andres Alonso
Baltimore's kinder, gentler reform superintendent
Move over, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein. There's a new "it" superintendent in town. He's Andrés Alonso, 53, the quiet-spoken Cuban-American head of the Baltimore City Public Schools who's pursued a dramatically different path than his more confrontational counterparts, stylistically at least, even as he's driven substantial changes in the long-troubled urban school system.
"Alonso's approach, despite removing principals, teachers, and central office staff he deemed ineffective, has been far less alienating than Rhee's," notes Education Week reporter Dakarai Aarons, noting that Rhee sometimes "seemed to delight in telling tales of teacher and staff incompetence and issuing bold statements about ridding the system of such people."
Things didn't start out well when Alonso first arrived, hired away from his spot as a Klein deputy in 2007 after only a year there. Community leaders objected to an Ivy League-educated outsider being brought in under a veil of secrecy. The teachers union threatened a vote of no confidence and issued a "work to rule" call in protest to Alonso's arrival. Race was an issue as well, though usually below the surface.
Since then, he's slashed central office staff by a third and replaced roughly 75 percent of the district's principals. There's also been a 280 percent increase in the number of terminations and an increase in the percentage of teachers rated unsatisfactory that now exceeds 10 percent. He's reduced the city's dropout rate by an eye-popping 50 percent (thanks to an early warning and response system triggered when kids miss school) and reduced suspension from a 2004 high of 26,000 to 10,000 a year. And yet, Alonso has won passage of an innovative new union contract, received a glowing review in the New York Times, and seems likely to get another four-year contract this summer. His three-year reign provides much-needed continuity for a system that had gone through a superintendent a year, on average, for the previous six years.
Alonso's willingness to look beyond test scores is one of the main things that sets him apart from some of the other high-profile administrators in big-city school systems. "I am not one who believes it is all about what happens on a test in one year," he says. He hasn't jumped onto the value-added-measure bandwagon, and argues that any such measures must not only be reliable but also presented with clear information about "what the numbers mean." "We have to get it right," he says.
Power at the School Level
At the same time, Alonso has put a lot of responsibility in the hands of building administrators and teachers. Principals have been put in charge of their own budgets and staffing, and are held accountable for performance both by the central office and a committee of parents and community members. The new approach, an increasingly popular innovation called "student-weighted funding," sends money to schools based on student needs rather than a cookie-cutter allocation model, and puts schools in charge of 80 percent of the money rather than less than 5 percent in the past.
Alonso is also extremely open with the press. "So much of the work is about communication," he says. He's not a sound-bite, talking-points kind of guy—preferring personal stories and lots of discussions—but he knows that he has to get the word out about what his team is doing if he's going to have any chance of success. He gives reporters his cell phone number and talks to journalists without the help of handlers. So far it seems to be working. "The press is my friend," he says.
He describes closing schools as being his hardest task because of the "extraordinary surge of memory and allegiance" that comes from community members no matter how many generations of kids a school may have failed. (He also knows firsthand how wrenching and unfair a closing can be, having taught 12 years at a school that was eventually merged with another.) And still, he's closed 26 of the system's 198 schools, opening new ones to provide better opportunities.
Under the Radar
To a certain extent, Alonso has been insulated from scrutiny by the absence of national press coverage and by a board that's appointed by the governor and the mayor. ("I'm a very lucky man," he says about his board.) But appointed boards and mayoral control are no magic wand, as Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and incoming NYC chancellor Cathie Black have learned.
The state's pursuit of a "Race to the Top" grant also helped. "So much of what I was proposing was in line with that state conversation, an opportunity to frame what would happen in Baltimore around things that we all know are going to be pillars going forward." Budget cuts, threatened and real, were another incentive for stakeholders to work together. Charters aren't as much of a presence as they are in other places, like Washington, D.C.
Contract Talk Baltimore-Style
In November, teachers approved a new contract that pays them based on performance, not seniority. The contract passed on its second try. During the process, negotiators agreed not to talk about the issues in public, and to "never utter the word ‘impasse,'" says Alonso, who claims not to have been worried about the failure of the contract on its first round of voting. "It shows they were serious. If it had been no big deal, it would have passed with ease."
The new evaluation system doesn't go as far as the one in D.C., which will be designed by the district alone, but it "totally re-envisioned the compensation structure," according to Mass Insight's Justin Cohen, instead of relying on bonus pay while leaving the issue of step-and-lane increases largely intact. Alonso thinks it's pretty groundbreaking, too. "We've gone from steps, college credit, and seniority to evaluation that's based 50 percent on student growth and schools being able to change the conditions of the contract by super-majority vote," says Alonso. "It's a huge shift."
Baltimore faces several challenges, including the state's last-in, first-out law, banning the use of effectiveness as a factor in layoffs. The district has lost roughly 400 teaching jobs over the past three years, and Alonso's team is hoping that attrition and strategic planning on the pipeline side will prevent mass layoffs like other districts are already experiencing.
In the meantime, Alonso describes resistance from teachers and principals as a product of previous negative experiences and uncertainty in how to deal with new flexibility and responsibility. The new flexibility and teacher contract are a "continent full of riches," he says with a flourish typical of the way he speaks. Yet despite his sympathy and understanding, he's not endlessly patient. "The way we do business in schools has to change, whether teachers or administrators like it or not."