What's really wrong here?

May 05, 1993

Several weeks ago, the Baltimore Teachers Union sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to its members announcing that it has started a "Take Back Our Schools" campaign designed to persuade Superintendent Walter Amprey and the school board to end all "experimental programs."

"What's really wrong here?" the letter asked. "The truth is that the experimental programs haven't made one iota of difference in the classroom. . . . It's time to quit making guinea pigs out of our students, teachers and school employees."

What's really wrong here? It's true that for most of this half-century a series of programs, some of them experimental, have come and gone. A few (the ungraded primary school) have come and gone twice. Some, such as the Early Childhood Learning Centers, died when they lost federal or foundation financing. But most (mastery learning and the new math, for example) expired because those who ordered them assumed wrongly that teachers would buy into them. Without teacher support, they died. And it was not that teachers opposed the ideas and philosophies behind the experiments; it was that the experiments usually required a good deal more work, work that was imposed from above without consultation with those who are really the experts -- the teachers in the classrooms. We recall a letter from the City College faculty to the late Superintendent Roland N. Patterson exactly 20 years ago criticizing the Right to Read program. "The major causes of reading weaknesses," it said, "are generally much deeper and more complex than implied by the administration."

No one was made a guinea pig in any of these efforts. And no one in any of the current "experiments" is a guinea pig.

For example, Success for All, a Johns Hopkins-originated program that is showing good results in inner-city schools, is based on sound and surprisingly simple educational principles. If anything is wrong with many of these efforts, it's that they cost too much.

A hidden agenda here, we suspect, is that the BTU got off on the wrong foot with Tesseract, an experiment in "privatization" under which nine city schools are being run by a Minneapolis firm. It's an exciting experiment that is being watched nationally; so far it has gotten good reviews from those directly involved -- including teachers.

The BTU leadership, unfortunately, hasn't gotten the message. Instead of railing at "miracle cures," the BTU ought to be seeking ways to collaborate with the contractor and others sponsoring experimental programs in the city. The BTU, of all organizations, should know it is by experimenting that people learn.

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