Failing schools

November 14, 1991

Although none of Maryland's 24 school districts earned distinguished marks in the state's annual performance assessment released this week, the fact that Baltimore city schools ranked at the bottom of the list is particular cause for concern. The system has been trying to improve itself for years, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. What the state education department report makes painfully clear is that, for the most part, these efforts have failed.

The image of city schools that emerges is one of a struggling, under-funded system that fails to educate the vast majority of students to minimum standards of competence and that tolerates a level of chronic absenteeism that leads to a third of students dropping out before graduating from high school. On the 13 measures used to assess school performance, Baltimore ranked so far behind other school systems as to exist in a class all its own.

Part of the city's problem is a lack of money. Baltimore County, for example, spends on average a third again as much per pupil as the city. The difference -- as much as $60,000 per classroom -- provides money for books, equipment and activities that give students from relatively affluent districts a decided advantage.

But money that goes directly to schools is only part of the real difference in resources. Twenty-five of Baltimore's 30 middle schools, for example, had student populations in which more than half the children came from families with incomes below the poverty line; in 11 of those schools, more than two-thirds of the children came from low-income homes. In the county, by contrast, poverty rates were less than half the city figures.

It's difficult to inspire love for learning in a child who comes to school hungry, who may go back to an overcrowded home where there is no place to study, or who may be growing up in an abusive situation. Far too many inner-city youngsters suffer such conditions, and the schools cannot be expected to compensate completely for all the disadvantages they bring to class.

Yet neither can educators blame all the schools' problems on parents or "the system." Since the schools are, by default, the main institution government has for shaping tomorrow's citizens, they must function more effectively. School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey will soon announce a set of long-term goals for the system. So far, Amprey has emphasized the responsibility of individual teachers and principals for making their schools work. That's good, but it may not be enough. It is up to Amprey now to make the case for what precisely must be done and how it can be accomplished in order for real reform to occur.

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