Coach Schmoke Needs a Bolder Game Plan

April 22, 1991|By TIM BAKER

As a quarterback Kurt Schmoke led his City College footballteam to championships in 1965 and again in 1966. His coach devised the overall game strategy. Schmoke called the plays and frequently carried the ball himself.

Football is a simple game. You block. You tackle. You run the ball. In contrast, urban education is emphatically not a simple game. Look around the league. You'll find a few successful schools, but no big-city school system in the country has had a winning season in a long time. Across the line of scrimmage urban schools face brutes like inadequate funding, poverty, drugs, violence, teen pregnancy, middle-class flight, racial politics, hopelessness. It's tough to move the ball against that line-up.

Kurt Schmoke can't play quarterback in the Baltimore public school system. If he could, he'd probably have scored a few touchdowns by now. But he's not the school superintendent. He's the mayor. The coach.

Three years ago, in his first year in the front office, Mayor Schmoke made a simple but serious mistake. He drafted the wrong quarterback. Then he stuck with his new superintendent too long. By the time the mayor finally benched him, everyone was angry and school reform had stalled.

Give the mayor credit, however. He has tried. Unlike his predecessor, he has made a personal and political commitment to progress in the schools. He has involved himself. Under his leadership a vague overall strategic vision has slowly emerged. He wants to decentralize the system -- to push power and responsibility down from the North Avenue bureaucracy into individual schools. Programs like Commonwealth, College Bound, Writing to Read and school-based management all point in the right directions. J. Edward Andrews, whom he appointed deputy school superintendent last spring, has done a terrific job.

Nevertheless, the mayor's first term has disappointed the high hopes which his election engendered. Some objective measures student achievement have risen. Others have fallen. None of them has shown the substantial improvement Mr. Schmoke wants or the city needs.

His new educational programs often seem to lack substance. Take school-based management, in many ways the core of his educational reform strategy. The program won't even begin until next fall. For some reason the school board allowed voluntary participation, as if progress were optional. Only 14 schools signed up for the three-year experiment. So even if it's successful, it won't begin to improve the other 166 schools until the end of Mr. Schmoke's second them.

While his school board searches for a new superintendent, Mayor Schmoke must get his educational team started again and do it in the middle of an election. Four years ago, he staked his political future on improving public education in Baltimore. He ran as an outsider who was free to criticize. Now he has a record to defend. His opponents claim he's had three losing seasons in a row.

Mr. Schmoke has begun to respond defensively. He says his administration hasn't received the credit it deserves for the progress it has achieved in the schools. He claims he has done the best job he could with the inadequate resources at his disposal.

Ironically, the dynamics of his own re-election campaign thus threaten to weaken his still impressive personal capacity to turn the schools around. His own political ambitions threaten to become another of the many entrenched interests which resist radical change.

Here's the dilemma. On the one hand, while the mayor runs for re-election, he may not feel he can still afford to speak realistically about how poorly the schools still perform or about how much more must be accomplished before they achieve educational success.

On the other hand, if he does not give this city a realistic assessment of the enormous task ahead, he will fail to mobilize the city's political will to continue the difficult march toward the distant but achievable goal of educational excellence.

That dilemma, however, will only trap Mr. Schmoke if he looks backward and allows his opponents to take the offensive while he cautiously tries to defend his record.

Fortunately, he has an available road out of that trap. He can define the political debate himself. He can strike boldly forward toward the future. He can rearticulate and reinvigorate his own educational vision for Baltimore. If he defines a bold and specific educational agenda for his second term, he'll leave his opponents far behind him.

As a first step, the mayor should publicly and dramatically take charge of the search for a new superintendent. Whatever the school board's theoretical prerogatives, this city elected Mr. Schmoke to lead educational reform. People still want him to make the important decisions himself. They specifically want to see him pick his own quarterback.

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