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School reform 2.0

With city schools CEO Andrés Alonso's announcement last week that he is stepping down at the end of this school year, Baltimore finds itself in the market for a new leader who can continue and expand upon the reforms he instituted. Whoever succeeds Mr. Alonso will have a hard act to follow, and finding a replacement who possesses the right combination of leadership, management and interpersonal skills won't be easy. That's why the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners must insist on conducting a thorough, nationwide search for the city's next schools CEO and resist pressures from some city leaders to short-circuit the process by rushing to name a successor.

Last week, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and others endorsed Mr. Alonso's former chief of staff, Tisha Edwards, who will serve as interim schools CEO through the 2014 school year. No doubt she merits consideration if she wants the job on a permanent basis, but the board also needs to cast a much wider net if it is to fully take advantage of its opportunity to recruit the best available person for the job.

Across the country, there may be numerous skilled, experienced educators with proven track records and the energy and ambition to take on the challenges of a big urban school system like Baltimore's. Some of them may actively be looking to move on from where they are, but others may not be. It's worth remembering that it took eight months to find Mr. Alonso, and that he wasn't even applying for positions at the time. The school board found him — almost by accident — rather than the other way around.

In searching for Mr. Alonso's replacement, the first thing the board needs to do is figure out what it wants from a new schools CEO. That will require it to meet with all the stakeholders in the city's schools — parents, teachers, administrators, elected officials and business and foundation leaders — to determine what the next phase of Baltimore's reform effort should look like.

Mr. Alonso's reforms to school budgeting, governance and accountability allowed the system to make rapid progress after he arrived, but there is also evidence that progress, at least when measured by student test scores, has stalled. We don't need an Alonso clone, we need Alonso 2.0 — someone who can move the system to the next level by instituting systemwide improvements in the quality of classroom instruction, student performance and achievement.

Mr. Alonso emphasized finding great principals and teachers who could serve as examples and role models for their colleagues as well for the children in their classrooms. Yet despite the improvements he introduced, much remains to be done in terms of raising test scores, attendance and graduation rates, college acceptances and career training.

Professional development for teachers still isn't as effective as it should be. And the decentralized structure of school governance, in which individual principals are free to set their own budgets and curriculum, has given educators more freedom to tailor programs but has also led to a lack of uniformity in teaching strategies and instructional methods across the system. One of the things Mr. Alonso's successor will have to do is choose a set of best practices that can be applied systemwide in schools across the city.

That will take time and a long-term commitment by all the stakeholders in the system, and the new schools CEO will have to be the kind of sure-footed leader who understands how to get from here to there. The stakes will be high as the city phases in the higher academic standards embodied in the new national curriculum known as the Common Core. Finding the right person for the job is crucial to the success of reform in Baltimore, and that can't happen unless the school board refuses to allow itself to be rushed to judgment regarding Mr. Alonso's successor.

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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