As the Baltimore school system attempts to rebound from a series of cheating scandals and its first significant test score decline in years, leaders are considering a worrisome possibility: They might have hit a wall in educating children.
Schools CEO Andrés Alonso, who signed a contract last week to stay on in the city for the next four years, has vowed to launch a school-by-school analysis of those that experienced declines on this year's Maryland School Assessments.
"If the schools are failing, it's because they don't know how to do it any better," Alonso said. "And that's where we come in … to help them do it better. That is the work."
Alonso pointed to a number of challenges still facing the school system, most of which affect the classroom: poor instruction, teaching to the test and lack of rigor in evaluating teachers.
On the 2011 assessments, the city's scores fell in reading and math, 3 percentage points and 5 percentage points respectively — a dip that education experts say is normal for large, urban school systems that have experienced years of rising scores.
Experts say Baltimore, with its first setback in years, was simply due for a reality check.
"It's a bucket of cold water in the face of the school district and the superintendent," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a national nonpartisan education group. "But the bucket of cold water is an opportunity to stop and think about what's going right, and what's going wrong."
Alonso has acknowledged that the city experienced a "pause" this year in drastic reforms that have fueled the movement it has seen since he arrived in 2007. For example, he closed 26 failing schools in his first three years, but none in his fourth.
Other initiatives — such as getting union contracts done for city educators — may have diverted attention from what was happening in the classroom.
"We took a rest this year because there were so many other things happening," he said. "We clearly have to begin to push in the same direction again."
While that could mean another rush of unsettling and controversial overhauls in schools, it's a welcome move among education advocates in the city.
"I appreciate the fact that Dr. Alonso has acknowledged that there are other underlying problems and [is] willing to address those," said Bebe Verdery, director of the Americian Civil Liberties Union of Maryland's Education Reform Project. "In a way, the cheating would have been the easy way out."
Verdery, who has advocated for the school system for decades, said that under Alonso's tenure, the system has undergone a transformation unlike any since 1997.
"But maybe this is a bit of a wake-up call to say that we've pushed the envelope and been innovative, but now we've got to make sure that every classroom has a great teacher with the right support," Verdery said. "They really need to up their game, but I think they know that. So I'm encouraged."
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said she was disappointed that the test scores fell this year. But, she said, "I know our teachers are working very hard to make sure our students are prepared not just for MSA testing, but also to move them forward in their education."
The declines come after Alonso has acknowledged widespread cheating at several schools. State officials found test-booklet tampering took place at George Washington Elementary on the 2008 assessments; Abbottston Elementary in 2009; and Fort Worthington Elementary in 2009 and 2010.
A dozen schools, eight from this past school year, are under investigation to determine whether their scores were legitimate. But at least five have been cleared by other factors, such as a low number of test takers and high turnover of staff.
"We will look very hard at the schools because assumptions can be unbelievably wrong," Alonso said. "And we will come through this stronger, because we're doing the right thing."