Milestone for City Schools
March 10, 2010
Monday’s announcement that federal oversight of Baltimore City’s special education programs will be ending within two years was rightly hailed by civic and educational leaders as a major milestone. It is a testament to how far the city school system has come recently and a reminder of how dysfunctional it was for most of the 26 years the lawsuit has been in effect.
But as good news as the announcement was, one has to ask: Why did it take the city schools so long to persuade the plaintiffs in this case that it was finally prepared to do the things that it should have been doing all along?
As recently as eight years ago, the judge overseeing the case threatened to throw the city schools CEO in jail for her failures, and six years ago, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick was floating the idea of a complete takeover of the system.
What changed over the last few years to turn around what for decades had seemed a h opeless deadlock?
In fairness, Baltimore isn’t the only large, urban school system that has long struggled to overcome a dismal record of underachievement when it comes to educating students with special needs. School systems across the country, including those in New York City and the District of Columbia, are facing long-standing, contentious lawsuits brought by parents and child advocates to force them to improve the quality of instruction and services for special education students. But after its years of litigation, Baltimore is now doing better by its special ed students than many jurisdictions that have never been sued.
It’s tempting to ascribe Baltimore’s success solely to city schools chief Andrés Alonso, who has engineered a remarkable turnaround in student achievement and test scores throughout the system. Yet, he would probably be the first to say it took the effort of many people to achieve this result. What he undoubtedly did accomplish, however, was to change the tenor of a debate that had long been mired in confrontation and bureaucratic gridlock to one of cooperation and dialogue.
Mr. Alonso’s background as a teacher – he worked a dozen years in the classroom teaching emotionally disturbed youngsters and English-language learners – no doubt also gave him unique insight into the problems faced by special ed students and their instructors. At the same time, his experiences as a lawyer must have made him acutely aware that it’s often better to agree with plaintiffs on a process to work together than to rely solely on court compulsion. When people are willing to work together, the process is usually more productive, and if they can agree on the right things to do, they make progress. When progress is made, the whole conversation changes.
That appears to be what happened in this case. School officials worked hard to understand what it would take to move forward in a way that satisfied the concerns of parents and advocates, and they accepted the need to relearn how to listen to complaints about discipline, test scores, graduation rates and other contentious issues. In the end, the two sides were able to establish a rhythm of cooperation that enabled them to provide individual schools with the support they needed to follow the law and, even more importantly, improve what was going on in classrooms.
As a result, advocates are now pointing to rapid increases in special education students’ academic performance and to the disappearance of the historic animosity between the system and those who were pursuing the lawsuit.
Yet Mr. Alonso was right to point out that while the end of court oversight is something to be proud of, Baltimore can’t afford to rest on its laurels. Special education students are improving, but their performance on standardized tests is still far from where it should be. The end of the lawsuit will remove a burden the district has long faced in reporting requirements and paperwork. But Monday’s announcement can only be seen as a victory if the energy that went into coping with the lawsuit for all these years can now go instead toward continuing and furthering the progress Baltimore’s special education students have made.