Researcher Samuel C. Stringfield gained an education by trading the ivory tower for a seat on the city school board.
Five-and-a-half years ago, against the advice of his wife and his academic colleagues, Samuel C. Stringfield stepped out of his ivory tower. The then-50-year-old education researcher, a nationally known expert on school improvement, became a member of the Baltimore city school board.
It was a gesture born of three things—public-spiritedness, a desire to translate research knowledge into practice, and intellectual curiosity. In the process, though, Stringfield became an overseer of one of the historically most troubled urban school districts in the nation. Over the course of his board tenure, the 89,000-student school system saw its rock- bottom test scores creep up, and it faced down fiscal insolvency and a possible state takeover.
At one painful point, protesters even swarmed into the school board meeting room, took over members’ seats, and called for their ouster.
At another, Stringfield and his board colleagues listened to the pleas of a grandmother worried that a planned school closing would mean that her grandchildren would have to walk past dangerous, drug-infested street corners on their way to school.
But there were also moments when the Johns Hopkins University scholar swelled with pride, sitting in on a press conference, for example, when school officials unveiled the system’s rising test scores and improving graduation rates.
“It was one of the best educations I’ve ever had,” the bearded researcher says of his years on the school board. “I was and remain mesmerized by it.”
Better known among his colleagues for his theories on “high reliability organizations” and his work on school effectiveness and comprehensive school reform, Stringfield was reflecting on his board experience last month as those duties officially came to an end or at least a pause. He left the board and the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, or crespar, located at Johns Hopkins here, for the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
At Louisville, he’s now a distinguished university scholar and the co-director of the school’s Nystrand Center of Excellence in Education. The North Carolina-born scholar took a break from his hectic transition, though, to share some of the lessons learned from his unusual vantage point as a researcher in the nitty- gritty world of urban school board politics.
Lesson 1: Don’t Underestimate the Commitment
In 1999, when then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of Baltimore was interviewing Stringfield for his unpaid appointment to the school board, the mayor asked the university scholar if he was prepared to commit 20 to 30 hours a week to board business. At that point in his 33-year-long career in education, Stringfield had taught high school and college, co-directed a research program at crespar for 15 years, and directed a federal technical-assistance center in Denver. He thought he had learned something along the way about organization.
“I said, well, if they’re spending that much time, they’re not managing their time well, and I would help them with that,” Stringfield recalls.
Wrong assumption, the professor says now.
“It reflected a very substantial misunderstanding on my part of the duties of the board,” he says. “It never took less than what the mayor said.”
That’s longer than the 25 hours a month that the average school board member spends on the job, according to the Alexandria, Va.- based National School Boards Association. But Baltimore’s problems were worse than most districts, too. By all accounts, the system was foundering in 1997, when the Maryland legislature wrested control of it away from the mayor’s office and revamped its governance structure. Its enrollment, composed mostly of poor, African-American students, was dwindling. Student achievement was the lowest in the state in every subject and in every grade, and it was falling further behind each year. Schoolhouses were crumbling, and the system was hemorrhaging teachers, most of whom left for better-paying jobs in the suburbs.
Lesson 2: Be Passionate
It’s midday in downtown Baltimore, and Stringfield is late for a school board committee meeting at City Hall. He bounds up the building’s stone steps but stops to buttonhole a city councilman who is on his way out the door. The councilman had criticized the school system on local television the night before, and Stringfield, in his polite Southern style, is insistently asking him to make a pitch for better state funding of the city’s schools the next time he gets in the bully pulpit.
If his fellow board members had observed the scene, they might have said it was vintage Stringfield. Over his years on the board, the researcher became a tireless booster for the schools, trumpeting the school system’s successes at every opportunity and often in the face of a wall of criticism.
“I was somewhat amazed at the level of passion he brought to his position,” says Patricia L. Welch, the board’s chairwoman and the education dean at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “I think he cares deeply about what happens to children who don’t have a say in the environment they grow up in but come to our public schools.”
The trick was to learn how to offer research expertise without coming off as the know-it-all professor.
Board and university colleagues say Stringfield also displayed his devotion to the job by marshaling research knowledge and researchers to advise the system, devoting his own time to studying school board issues, showing up at committee meetings he was not required to attend, and collaring younger scholars in his shop at Hopkins to do studies that might be potentially useful to district-level decisionmakers. At one point, he also tried to set up an independent, university- based think tank to produce research targeted to the needs of the school system, much as the Consortium on Chicago School Research does for that city’s public schools.
“I lost that one,” Stringfield says.
But, in the end, he did manage to take a lead in upgrading the school system’s in-house research and evaluation office. The system also scored a coup by hiring a top-notch researcher to head the office.
The trick, Stringfield says, was to learn how to offer his research expertise without coming off as the know-it-all professor.
“Whatever the stereotype is of the academic who cannot actually make hard decisions in the real world, that’s not who Sam is,” says Ralph S. Tyler, who served on the board with Stringfield until last year and is now Baltimore’s city solicitor. “He certainly had the capacity to look at tough problems and help us do what needed to be done.”
Lesson 3: See the Big Picture
Over lunch on an August day, Stringfield, who is fond of telling stories, is relating the well-worn one about the elephant and the five blind men. As the story goes, each man, after feeling a different part of the elephant, comes away with a different idea of what an elephant looks like.
“Well, being on the school board is the closest I’ve come to seeing the whole elephant,” the researcher says of his experience. That new vision, he adds, even colors his research now. Back at his office at Johns Hopkins, Stringfield offers proof. He fishes out a just-funded research proposal for a three-year study looking at what happens when four schools across the country systematically implement improvements based on findings from research on school effects. As part of that effort, the researchers plan to talk with people at every level of the education bureaucracy, from the classroom all the way to the state and federal governments. They will probe the political alliances, friendship ties, and professional relationships that can hinder or block a school improvement effort; they’ll even examine unofficial communications, such as e-mails or telephone conversations, that are related to the interventions under study.
“I don’t know that I would’ve had the wisdom to do that five years ago,” Stringfield says. “I’m a much more sophisticated observer of systems now.”
At the same time, he says, one of the bigger challenges of his public-service career may have been dealing with all the people who would come before the board narrowly focused on just one part of the elephant.
“For example, someone from the pta may have a complaint, and there is almost always a word of truth in what they have to say,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean their solution won’t cause more trouble for the system as a whole. A lot of graduate-level and college education doesn’t prepare you to deal with that.”
Lesson 4: Money Matters
Used to handling research grants of up to $4 million, Stringfield says he was “gobsmacked” the first time he looked at a budget of $750 million or more for the Baltimore city schools. Over the course of his tenure on the board, though, he learned that his early anxiety was well placed: Contrary to some of the studies produced by some of his research colleagues around the country, Stringfield found that in practice money does, indeed, make a difference.
“I saw his frustration at not having adequate funding to do what research had told him needed to be done, and now he could actually see it outside of lab settings,” says Welch, the board chairwoman.
Despite an infusion of state money into the school system in the late 1990s, Stringfield and his colleagues on the board complain that their district suffers from chronic underfunding by the state. Just to meet a backlog of repairs needed for the system’s aging school buildings, they contend, would cost $1 billion money the school system does not have.
It was also a lack of money that landed the school system in the biggest crisis since its overhaul in 1997. Last year, facing a $58 million deficit in its $914 million budget, the district was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The cash-flow emergency led to a city loan bailout and forced the board to furlough 800 central-administration employees.
The crisis is what prompted the dramatic protests at the school district’s North Avenue headquarters and the calls to oust veteran board members.
“One of my biggest disappointments is the budget mess and being unable to fully articulate to the public and to fellow board members what was coming,” Stringfield says. Even though district staff kept assuring the board the system could afford to hire 300-plus academic coaches for schools, raise teacher salaries by as much as 57 percent over seven years, and offer summer school to every student in danger of failing state exams, Stringfield says, “I couldn’t make the numbers add up.”
‘I saw his frustration at not having adequate funding to do what research told him needed to be done.’
While some of his fellow members might not agree that the crisis could have been foreseen, the researcher says, “I think we all would agree that we didn’t have the quality of data that would’ve made a compelling case one way or the other.” Better calculation of teacher-vacancy rates, for instance, would have prevented the district from hiring too many teachers at the start of the last school year.
Kevin A. Slayton Sr. attended those board meetings regularly as the chairman of an independent community advisory board created in the 1997 restructuring. He says Stringfield was a voice of reason on the board, often voting no or abstaining when such crucial information was lacking.
“If there were more that might’ve taken that stance, we might not be as bad off today,” Slayton says, even though his organization at one point called for Stringfield and other board members to step down.
Now, he says, “I think that [action] cast a negative light on the truly hard work and thoughtfulness Sam brought to his role. I not only would like to see him come back I would’ve liked to see him come back as chair.” The professor was vice chair before he left his board post this summer.
What Stringfield regrets now, though, is that the lingering stigma from the financial crisis will overshadow the academic strides the school system has made over the past six years.
In fact, that is the perception of some community activists, such as Mitchell
Klein, whose group, the Baltimore affiliate of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now or acorn, led the dramatic attempted takeover of school board seats last winter.
“It’s time for some parents to sit on the board,” he insists. “We’ve got to get rid of people who are just education wonks and get some accountability for the board.”
Lesson 5: Urban School Reform Is Possible
In his office at Johns Hopkins, Stringfield keeps poster-board blowups of charts showing the academic gains Baltimore students have made over the past few years. On the Maryland School Assessment, for example, the number of 3rd graders scoring “proficient” increased 15 percentage points in reading and 12 percentage points in math from 2003 to 2004. On national norm-referenced tests, the gains in the upper- elementary grades ranged from 18 to 26 percentile points between 1998 and 2002. At the same time, annual graduation rates, rising from 46 percent in 1998 to 59 percent in 2002, have outpaced the state’s average improvement rate.
“The most important thing I learned,” the researcher says, “is that urban school reform is possible. Academic-achievement improvement can happen and be documented, though it won’t always be linear,” he says. “The Baltimore city school system is fundamentally a healthier school system now than it was in 1997.”
He concedes, though, that the school system still has a long way to go. On the state tests, for instance, Baltimore remains the lowest-performing district in the state, even though it has moved up to second-to-last in a few subjects and grades. This fall, state officials say, 32 of the system’s schools must be restructured under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
But the school system is also digging its way out of the financial mess that grabbed headlines last year. The district ended its fiscal year in June with a balanced budget and paid back its $30 million loan from the city on time.
Stringfield likes to believe the school board had a hand in that success. Created as part of the 1997 restructuring, the board is made up of nine voting members who are selected from a list put together by the state superintendent and appointed jointly by the mayor and the state. To Stringfield’s way of thinking, the process produced a board that was distinguished, intelligent, and able to set special interests aside when it was time to decide the best course for the Baltimore schools.
“You could’ve substituted that board for any department in a university,” Stringfield says of his colleagues. He would never have served, he says, on a school board that had to cope with the distractions of running for office.
Despite the controversies and the frustration, he has no regrets about choosing to serve on the board. “You like to think in your life that you gave something back,” he says. “I like being a university scholar, but I also like doing something like this that is concrete and measurable.”