Baltimore schools come full circle

Fred B. Shoken

September 02, 1992|By Fred B. Shoken

AS if Baltimore city public schools do not have enough problems, the October '92 issue of The Forum, a national publication, features an article titled "Our Public Schools: Evils in Baltimore." This article, the first in a series on public schools in 36 cities, examines local school systems through field observation and an analysis of school management.

The author spent time in Baltimore classrooms and found the instruction to be woefully lacking. Arithmetic consisted of endless repetition. Reading instruction was fully as mechanical as arithmetic. A geography class consisted of memorizing words in a textbook, and natural science lessons were conducted without any experiments.

One principal is quoted: "Oh, we have no experiments. We learn our physics from books. The city supplies us with no apparatus. We are at liberty to experiment if we desire. A friend of mine, VVTC principal, informed me that she tried an experiment once, but it was a failure, and she vowed that she would never dream of making another one."

"I did not succeed in discovering any evidence that the science of education has as yet found its way into the public schools of Baltimore," says the author.

And other conclusions are just as disturbing: Baltimore citizens are apathetic toward education. The Board of School Commissioners "is a purely political organization." There is poor supervision of instructors. And the "schools of Baltimore are about entirely in the hands of untrained teachers."

The final assessment in the article is a chilling indictment of public education in Baltimore:

"Until a material change is effected, those attending the schools of [the] city will be doomed to a miserble childhood."

This critique in a national publication likely would spark a strong response from Mayor Schmoke and an even stronger one from Superintendent Walter Amprey, except for one thing: The article was published in October 1892, 100 years ago.

Too often we reflect that our schools were much better in the past. After all, who wants to claim to be a product of a failed school system.? Yet in every age we have critics of public education. Clearly the nature of our problems have changed, but any school system will come under sharp scrutiny.

According to the article, "The citizens of Baltimore glory in the fact that their schools are among the best in the country; or, as the more modest claim, second to none but those of Boston. And if things are perfect or nearly so, why interfere?" Today, we're more concerned with the apathy of parents and students, many of whom have given up on the schools, than we are with how Baltimoreans rank their schools against those in other cities.

A century ago, the school board was criticized for being too political. Its members were were elected by the City Council. Each councilman nominated a member from his ward, creating a school board that was a rife with patronage. In 1992, the board is appointed by the mayor and often accused of being less than independent. Critics call for an elected school that would be more "accountable" to citizens.

Supervision in the schools of the 1890s was criticized for being "by far too meager." A system of 1,400 teachers had a supervisory staff of two. Today, even Dr. Amprey complains publicly about the bloated administrative staff he supervises on North Avenue.

Teachers 100 years ago were faulted for lacking professional training. The report says the discharge of teachers for negligence or incompetence "is an almost unheard-of affair." Today, many believe the schools can't keep good teachers because of low salaries and poor working conditions. The Baltimore Teachers Union is blamed for resisting the discharge of the unqualified.

In short, after 100 years the schools seem to have come full circle.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Fred B. Shoken is a historian and product of Baltimore schools.

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