Big Think Interview With Andres Alonso
Dr. Andres Alonso was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of 12. Originally speaking no English, he attended public schools in Union City, New Jersey, and ultimately graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University. Dr. Alonso went on to earn a J.D. from Harvard Law School and practiced law in New York City before changing course to become an educator. In 2006 he was awarded a Doctorate in Education from Harvard University.
From 1987 to 1998, Dr. Alonso taught emotionally disturbed special education adolescents and English language learners in Newark, New Jersey. He worked at the New York City Department of Education from 2003 to 2007, first as Chief of Staff and then as Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, working closely with the Chancellor in planning and implementing the reform of the largest educational system in the nation. On July 1, 2007, Dr. Alonso was named CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools).
Among many other awards, in 2008 he was granted the “Audacious Individual Award” by the Open Society Institute Baltimore, and named “Innovator of the Year” by The Daily Record. In 2009 he was named “School Superintendent of the Year” by the Fullwood Foundation, and recognized as a “Hispanic Hero Award” winner by U.S. Hispanic Youth Entrepreneur Education. In August 2009 Dr. Alonso was appointed to the prestigious No Child Left Behind Committee for the Aspen Institute, a bipartisan effort to improve federal education policy to spur academic progress and close the achievement gap.
Andres Alonso: My first name is Andres, last name is Alonso. I’m Chief Executive Officer of the Baltimore City Public Schools.\r\n
Question: What does your job entail on a day-to-day basis?\r\n
Andres Alonso: Well, I’m the head of a large urban school district. I have 201 schools, 83,000 kids, 12,000 employees, 6,600 of them teachers. Because I’m the face of the district, the work is about interacting with parents, with stakeholders. Because I’m the lead manager in the district, it’s also about visiting schools, meeting principals, having the kinds of interactions that are about the operations of the district. I try to be in school three, four times a week. It’s not always possible and it’s a 24/7 job with very long hours, lots of frustration but also lots of energy and great, great moments in terms of what we see in classrooms and in schools.\r\n
Question: What are the biggest challenges facing you as CEO, and what specific steps have you taken to address them?\r\n
Andres Alonso: Well, the most serious problem, of course, is chronic underachievement. We have a school system where traditionally fewer than 50 percent of the kids were graduating every single year. It was also our school system that over time had lost tens of thousands of students from its enrollment. Part of it because the city went from a city of a million people in the 1960’s to a city with 600,000 people in the early 2000. Lots of poverty, serious crime issues, tremendous issues of compliance in terms of its relationship with the state, a 25 year old special education lawsuit that has just refused to go away.\r\n
So, many, many issues similar in some cases, unfortunately, to the issues that other cities like Detroit, Cleveland, DC, have had over time, but with their own unique flavoring of course. And the work for me from the beginning was about, first of all, create a sense of energy and hope about the district. The sense that we were going to get the kids the graduate, give parents the choices that they had felt over time they didn’t have which caused them to leave, establish norms of accountability and norms of effectiveness in the district and engage, engage, engage with parents, teachers, business, community folks so that we would all reach a consensus about what needed to be done in the schools.\r\n
In, you know, three years into the job, I’m on my 31st month in the job, I think that we have been remarkably successful in terms of beginning to turn around a school district and having quick wins in making significant leaps in a relatively short amount of time.\r\n
Question: What’s a recent big goal that you took on, and did you pursue it through improvisation or elaborate planning?\r\n
Andres Alonso: What’s interesting is that I didn’t arrive with a blueprint. I think it’s very dangerous to go into a context and assume that because it worked someplace else it’s going to work there. In many ways it’s the context itself needs to tell you what needs to happen. There are certain things that are the answer wherever you go. I mean, you have to have teachers that are prepared. You have to provide the necessary resources to support the schools. You have to establish certain norms of effectiveness that everybody strives toward. The decisions have to be made on the basis on what's good for kids. That, in a way, might be the most important things to establish, because if the decision are made on any different basis, political basis for example, then no one should be surprised that the systems don’t improve.\r\n
So, because of this philosophy, part of what I did at the beginning was just to listen. So, within in the first two months on the job, for example, I went to community forums that allowed me to talk to 2000, 3000 people before school began. And out of those conversations, things emerge, task emerge. It was very clear, for example, that parents wanted choice. It was very clear that they wanted new settings in sixth grade and ninth grade. It was very clear that they wanted to be engaged. They felt that the school system had sort of pushed them away.\r\n
There was a kind of obsession with making adequate yearly progress with meeting “No Child Left Behind” objectives, in part because the city had never made **** in any of its dimensions. So, a lot of the work that we then did and we spent a lot of energy on creating new schools, on expanding alternative options, on working with teachers about new ways of collaborating for example. All those elements emerge from those conversations; it just seems so clear that that’s what the seriously involved people were telling us needed to happen.\r\n
And everything has been a response to process of engagement with certain clear sort of foundational pieces. The focus on achievement, I believe that the community has to be brought in because so much of the history of the district has been about the community exiting. Choice and competition as key elements of the work since, again, so much of the history of the district has been about a lack of choice so that the poorest kids have the fewest options and competition because the district was allowed to stagnate for so long. And then a combination of autonomy and accountability at the school that allows the schools to make the decisions that need to be made for their own kids. Everything has sort of stemmed from those key elements.\r\n
Question: What is the value of closing failing schools?\r\n
Andres Alonso: Well, so much of what happens in schools is about somehow not trying to transgress on the interests of adults. So, from a symbolic perspective, in order to ensure that everybody knew that everybody had skin in the game, because many of the schools that we chose to close had been really toxic environments in terms of their outcomes for kids over time. Because it seemed to us that if we were going to create settings that were going to work for kids in a transformational way over time, we needed to give people a chance in terms of starting new communities and settings that had truly different cultures. We chose to close schools. It’s an extraordinarily hard endeavor because one of the things that every superintendent who tries this immediately learns is that it doesn’t matter how bad a school is, the community doesn’t want it closed.\r\n
You have schools where 25 percent of the kids are performing at proficient in advance or where 30 percent of kids have graduated and you have people coming to tell you that, “No, no. It’s not about the schools; it’s about the school not getting support.” There's also a sense in neighborhoods, schools are very much part of the history of neighborhoods and anybody who dares to close a school in some way is violating a story arc for that neighborhood. People graduated from that school. Quite often you have teachers who attended the school and there's always this sense that the central office has not done its job which for us was, you know, something that we admitted from the start as in this not about the schools per say. This is about how a system has accepted a failure over time and we’re going to succeed, then we need to understand that there has to be a process of renewal and we need to give new schools a chance.\r\n
So, it wasn’t hard for us in terms of making the decision, it was hard to implement it. We closed six schools last year. We’re closing another five this year. We just announced it on Tuesday. We had already launched in that process of having conversations with community that takes tremendous energy from staff. And we - by the way, there's this debate about whether the way to improve school systems is to close schools or to turn them around. I mean, I think it takes everything. We close some, we turn some around in terms of bringing in new programs. But, the closure of the worst performing schools, I think it’s absolutely necessary as long as we’re providing something that is better as part of the exchange.\r\n
So, it’s been a hard thing for us to do, but something that I think is making the district much better. We’ve become predictable which is a really good thing in terms of how organizations work. Principals understand that if the outcomes go down, there are certain consequences and the consequences are not simply about the kids, it’s about what happens to an institution.\r\n
Right now, for example, I’m recommending the nonrenewal of a charter. It will be the first time that a charter is not renewed in the district and the reason for that is that here is a school that has all the autonomy in the world, the district is advancing, the school is regressing. Well, you know, the school loses the charter in the same way that a traditional school might be closed.\r\n
Question: What does it mean to say that schools must be made more “accountable?”\r\n
Andres Alonso: Well, at some level, accountable to me. As in, because if I’ve been hired to do certain things and once those things have been articulated, then I don’t have too much patience with the abstract notion. It’s, you know, ultimately everybody’s accountable to me. That’s why it’s easy to close certain schools because I’m holding them accountable. We have said, “This is what needs to happen. If it’s not happening fast enough, then there's this an accountability point that we will have to address.”\r\n
In the larger sense, the accountability is to a community and it’s very, very hard to get communities to agree on what accountability means. As in, everybody wants every kid to graduate, but when schools don’t graduate half the kids they don’t want those schools to go away. So, part of the work of leadership is to make sure that that tension is very clear to everybody. We are in an age where accountability is being defined in terms of test scores and when it’s being done well, it’s test scores that are related to growth and to gains. When it’s not being done well, it’s about absolutes that sometimes have nothing to do with the value of the work being done in a school.\r\n
I believe that quite often something very important is being missed. At the same time, I have very little patience with people who rail against tests when if it were about their own kids they would be going crazy if their kids were not able to do well on an SAT exam because that would mean that they wouldn’t be getting into the college that they could be proud about.\r\n
So, I think it’s a complex conversation, but at some level the work has been about making it simple. How are we as a system going to define what growth means? How are we going to be able to distinguish among schools so that the conversation about what is a good school changes? A good school is not a school where the middle class kids go. A good school is a school that is achieving progress for large numbers of kids. A good school is also a school that a community endorses. Not by showing up when I say the school is closing, but by having 100 parents on a back to school night in a clearly easy relationship in terms of the conversations that are taking place among kids.\r\n
So, I mean it’s - all these things enter the conversation, but there's no way to avoiding a harshness in the conversation if the work is going to be meaningful about fast change in a district that has been stagnating over time.\r\n
Question: Should No Child Left Behind be retained, abandoned, or improved?\r\n
Andres Alonso: Well, it looks like it’s sort of going away on its own right now, as in, you have Race to the Top taking the salience in how states and districts are orienting their work. It stills matters tremendously in terms of how schools in the public sort of see local accountability. I started teaching at a time when the special education and the classrooms were all in the basement and those were the classrooms that got the books last because they didn’t count in the test scores.\r\n
So, there's an element of No Child Left Behind that I have always applauded, which is that it expanded the demand for hard work and progress to every single child. I think it did it very bluntly and with huge consequences in terms of narrowing of instruction. It was also, in many ways, too timid in that it never defined standards. It left untouched questions of equity as in, you know, it called for highly qualified teacher, but it did nothing about making sure that they ended up in the poorest schools. Or it called for choice, but it made choice within districts. Well, what if the districts don’t have enough good schools for choice? It didn’t open up the choice to the adjacent suburb where all the middle class kids are.\r\n
So, it was very bold in some ways; it was very, very timid in others. Clearly, many things about it now change. The accountability system will be different, the move towards common standards has extraordinary velocity right now, the nature of the tests is going to change. So, I’m intrigued by what happens in the next couple of years because it potentially reorients everything and one of the amazing things that the new administration has done is it settled very early on a change in practice. Before, the big lever for the federal government was money as always, but the money always went out in a formula. What has been happening is that the money has - huge amounts of money are now discretionary. They're being distributed in a discretionary way and that has created a stampede towards these dollars and of course everybody trying to qualify for the dollars in ways that has completed shifted how, you know, certain states are looking at their work. It’s quite impressive. I mean, I give the Secretary of Education enormous credit for this. I don’t think I would have been able to think of it. So, I applaud him.\r\n
Question: As the Baltimore schools CEO, have you ever watched “The Wire”?\r\n
Andres Alonso: I never watched it. I’m familiar with it. You know why I’ve never watched it? So, first of all, people think it’s an amazing show and they always react to me as in, “How could you not have watched The Wire?” When I decided that I was going to go to Baltimore and everybody said, “You have to have watched ‘The Wire,’ and you have to watch the fourth season. That’s the season that is about education.” It just struck me, no, if I’m going to give the city a chance, I can’t approach it through the lens of a work of fiction, however magnificent it might be, that shows it in its worst light. And I love people in schools too much to do that to them.\r\n
So, I - and, of course, I taught in Newark, New Jersey for 12 years, so I felt that I don’t need to watch a TV show to understand what happens in some of the urban, the core of America. So, I’ve decided that I wouldn’t watch it and I’m just too busy to watch 150 hours of TV or however long it might take right now. So, I haven’t watched an HBO series since “The Sopranos” and, of course, “The Sopranos” I watched because I’m from New Jersey. So, that’s the story of “The Wire” for me.\r\n
Question: How has your experience teaching ESL and special needs students informed your administrative career?\r\n
Andres Alonso: You know, I’ll just tell you about a moment of frustration. I walked into the classroom without ever having had an education course. Had been a lawyer, sort of fell into this environment where I was running a program and I was teaching. And I had - there were emotionally disturbed adolescents, age 11 through 14, and because it was self-contained settings, you had kids ranging from 11 years old to 14. The kid who was completely in grade level to the kid who didn’t read.\r\n
And there's a kid that I’ll always remember. His name was Ivan. Bright, bright, bright. Right now, I mean, I know that this is a kid who was completely dyslexic. Nobody ever diagnosed what he had and he ended up in a classroom for emotionally disturbed kids. There was nothing emotionally disturbed about this kid. He just couldn’t function in a school and nobody had figured out a way to approach him. So, I remember going to my principal, a woman named Wilma ****, and this must have happened within the first month that I was a teacher. And basically reaching out to her and just saying, “You know what, I just don’t know how to teach this kid. I don’t know how to teach Ivan. I sit with him every single day for 45 minutes. Figure out a way to give him 45 minutes of one on one instruction. I come back the next day, it’s like we’ve done nothing the day before.” And I always remember her telling me sort of, like, there's a key. Just looking for the - just keep looking for the key. Keep looking for the key. She was a great influence.\r\n
So, when I think of classrooms and think of kids, I always think of that kid and that name. It’s a very important thing for me. I mean, this idea of, “What do we do with Ivan, right?” And also that idea that you might have tried 35 things, but there's a key that you haven’t found. And of course, it informs the way that I think, because I was so unprepared and the systems were not in place back then. The knowledge might not have been in place. While today, I think that we have - in places that have gotten their act together, they are just different ways of insuring that somebody who walks into a classroom without the necessary knowledge gains the hooks, is able to have the kinds of conversations so that they don’t walk into a room and say, “I just don’t know how to do this.”\r\n
So, that’s very much at the core of how I see the work. I think that there is a key and I think that we all benefit from saying sometimes, “I just have no clue how to approach this.” I think adults have a hard time with that.\r\n
Recorded on January 29, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
A conversation with the CEO of the Baltimore public school system.
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