Douglas High Cross Examined!

The HBO Documentary “Hard Times At Douglas High” about a Baltimore High School has been stirring-up some good debate.

Chris Cross, a former president of the Maryland Board of Education, former federal education official, and non-profit leader offers his thoughts on some context. Chris is now a national consultant based out of California.

Earlier this week, I tuned into the HBO documentary “Hard Times at Douglass High: A New Child Left Behind Report Card.” The film-makers, Alan and Susan Raymond spent a year at Frederick Douglass High in Baltimore reporting on what they describe as that school’s struggle to meet the expectations of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

While a very well done documentary that lays bare the wasteland that urban schools often are, the film fails as a commentary on NCLB. Fourteen years ago, I was chairing the MD State Board of Education when Douglass was before us as one of the first two schools which the state identified for possible reconstitution because of its dismal record in serving students in Baltimore City. Regrettably, despite many partnerships and a great deal of attention in the intervening years, little seems to have changed, but to associate the situation as being caused by NCLB is simply bizarre. If anything, NCLB simply cast yet another bright light on an already intolerable situation.

The State Board stopped short of reconstituting Douglass in the 90’s when it became clear that the problems were systemic; Douglass was the recipient of many students who had been simply passed down the line from grade to grade, school to school, all too often never mastering the basics. In March, 2006, the state board voted to have Douglass and a number of other Baltimore schools assigned to an outside organization under a management contract. That action took place in an election year in MD and the mayor of Baltimore, Martin O’Malley, was the leading candidate to beat the incumbent Republican governor. The issue became a political football and the legislature passed a law preventing the state from acting. In the meantime, schools like Douglass limped on.

While campaigning and after taking office, O’Malley attacked the state superintendent, Nancy Grasmick, largely motivated by her attempted actions in Baltimore. Grasmick faced O’Malley down and is still the state chief. In the meantime Baltimore has a new superintendent, Andres Alonso, who seems ready to break a bit of crockery in order to improve schools like Douglass.

Now watching that unfold would be a great new documentary! A TV documentary can be a powerful instrument of communication when it tells the right story.

–Chris Cross

10 Replies to “Douglas High Cross Examined!”

  1. This is one of the first comments on the HBO documentary on Baltimore high schools that mentions the major restructuring and partnerships that have dramatically changed the face of BCPSS high schools starting in 2003 and ending its first phase in 2007. And while it does mention them, it doesnt go into detail on the extent of the interventions and what it really means for BCPSS high schools in the current year.

    While the system is still struggling, the schools themselves look very different as a result of several local foundations and Gates pouring millions into bringing innovation into the high schools via small school reform and outside operators. Additionally, an evaluation of the reform effort was conducted collecting survey and interview data on the process and outcomes and culminating in a student level analysis of the impact of the reform on enrollment and academic outcomes. It makes me wonder why no broader commentary has appeared as a result of that work.

    While the documentary may provide commentary on urban high schools in general it is not an accurate depiction of what BCPSS looks like today.

  2. We all know the joke, “You can’t get there from here.”

    I know we can find a way to get there and turn around schools like Douglass, or the school where I teach. I hope Peggy is right about new efforts in Baltimore, and the millions of dollars of new money. But doesn’t that fit under the category of putting the cart before the horse. Maybe we should have built capacity BEFORE the gamble of NCLB.

    I’m glad that Chris Cross identified systemic problems as undercutting pre-NCLB efforts, and he does educational strategy, so I’d like to ask him a couple of questions.

    Back when NCLB was passed, could he identify any scenerio where Douglass would be transformed by NCLB ACCOUNTBILITY?

    NOW, is there any new accountability proposal that would be key to any plausible scenario to turning around Douglass?

    I appreciate the institutional history I just learned from Cross, but I think he misinterpreted the documentary. The whole point is that NCLB is irrelevent to places like Douglass.

    I don’t oppose anything about NCLB except its ridiculous accountablity regime. I fail to see how the taxpayers will become more willing to invest in inner city schools because of NCLB, that largely failed while wasting billions, or a newer tougher NCLB. How in the world would a better system of blame and shame help attract the teaching talent required to turn Douglass around?

  3. The Douglas High documentary can serve as testimony to conditions that persist in many urban schools. The experience that the viewer brings to the film will determine in large measure how they interpret the relationship between the school and NCLB.

    My experience tells me that NCLB with its “Just Do It(or else)” paradigm is irrelevent to the pathology of a Douglas High. The film demonstrates that good intentions alone will not reverse the failures that preceded the vast majority of these students arrival at Douglas. Certainly the fact that two out of three teachers are not certified and that positions go unfilled well into the school year create an atmosphere of desperation. And a safe and orderly environment is an absolute precondition for school improvement and not apparent at Douglas.

    When Congressional policymakers make their next attempt at making lemonade out of the lemon that is our current federal education policy they would do well to review this film and ask themselves how their various proposals will specifically provide support to revitalizing not only schools such as Douglas High, but preemptively dealing with the conditions surrounding them as well.

  4. NCLB requires states to do something about schools like Douglas and gives them money to do it. How exactly Maryland’s obvious failing at this obligation is the fault of NCLB escapes me.

  5. @anonymous

    It is important to realize that when schools to not meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) they are at risk of losing federal funds.

  6. Kyle–

    That is actually one of the big myths about the law. The tutoring and public school choice provisions of the law can redirect a state’s Title I funding, arguably a loss of funds, but there are no provisions for schools to lose funds if they don’t make AYP. In fact, in general they get — or under the law are supposed to get, more resources.

  7. The Principal made the comment “You can’t blame the students.”
    THE HELL YOU CAN’T! No child should be left behind who really
    wants an education but those who will do nothing to try to
    obtain one just screw it up for those who do. Those who won’t
    attend or won’t work when they do attend should be kicked out
    or sent to one of those “warehouse” type schools that just
    baby sit them until they are 18 and then half of them can go
    out on the street and sell dope to the other half and we can
    build another prison and another rehab center to accommodate them.

    Once they see that an education is something worthwhile to be achieved not avoided they may come back. Even it they don’t, nothing is lost.

  8. when you said a tv documentary, is something powerful, i agree because people do beleive most of what comes on the TV and, thats a good article mate

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