New report offers suggestions to improve Baltimore City schools

Yesterday, the Fund for Educational Excellence released a highly anticipated report called "City Speaks: Community Voices on Baltimore Schools," which suggests that Baltimore City Public Schools create more welcoming school environments, improve recruitment and development of teachers, create benchmarks to improve college readiness among students, and introduce a wider array of in-school and after-school activities.

The report is a result of a series of extended conversations with Baltimore City residents about the city's public schools. As part of the study, the group held 63 "kitchen table conversations," including 859 participants representing all of the city's 55 "community statistical areas," as the report puts it. The Sun and Baltimore Brew each offered their recaps of the report yesterday. And one kitchen table conversation host, Elizabeth Kennedy (disclosure: she's a friend; also my wife is a teacher at a Baltimore City public high school), who is quoted in the Sun story, wrote a piece for the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance blog about her experience and thoughts on the process.

To quote the executive summary, the report suggests four core things that Baltimore residents want from their public schools:

"1. Increased parent and community involvement in schools coupled with more welcoming school environments, 

2. Talented teachers and other school staff who are invested in students,

3. Increased academic expectations for students along with the support they need to meet more rigorous standards and succeed beyond their high school years, and

4. Structured activities for children within and beyond the school day and the school year."

And it offered four recommendations:

"1. Create more welcoming school environments. Making a district-wide cultural shift to more open, responsive interactions with families and community members is a prerequisite for addressing many of the other concerns participants identified. 

2. Leverage the tools at your disposal to reward, retain, and develop teachers.

3. Develop a comprehensive set of college and career readiness benchmarks and report out to individual students and families where students are performing against these benchmarks.

4. Offer a wider variety of courses during school and more after-school activities for students."

One thing that was not addressed in the coverage of the City Speaks report is the background of the Baltimore-based Fund for Educational Excellence, the group that commissioned the report. It's worth noting that the group's president and CEO Roger Schulman spent much of his career at The New Teachers Project (TNTP), where he was a senior analyst. TNTP, which helps recruit quality teachers to urban schools, was founded by Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools. In her first year as chancellor, Rhee closed down 23 schools and fired 36 principals, and brought reforms that emphasized standardized tests and high-level accountability. Test scores were shown to improve, but Rhee was widely criticized for an approach that was considered autocratic, anti-union, and didn't value input from parents and teachers. Since resigning as chancellor of D.C. schools, Rhee has founded StudentsFirst, an organization dedicated to ending teacher tenure.

Schulman is also a former Teach for America teacher and worked as executive director of TFA's Baltimore office. TFA is also controversial among some teachers for sending some of the system's youngest, least-experienced educators into some of the most troubled urban schools, often without the support many teachers say they need, which leads to many TFA teachers leaving the profession after two years.

The City Speaks report, by gathering input from community stakeholders, seems like a good first step for FFEE. Going forward, it'll be interesting to see how the group's reform efforts compare to the organizations Mr. Schulman has worked at in the past.

Dr. Gregory Thornton, the new CEO of city schools, released a statement about the report.

"It is heartening to see so many of the district's current priorities echoed in the comments of the community: A need to redouble efforts to enlist families and communities in supporting Baltimore's children and to encourage their involvement in schools; [and] an emphasis on the importance of recruiting and developing effective staff," he said.

I sat down with Dr. Thornton last week for an extended interview in which he addressed many of the subjects raised in the report, and offered explicit plans to address some of them. Read what he had to say in next week's City Paper.

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