School Reform's Rocky Road

May 08, 1993

Education reformers occasionally succeed in fixing individual schools, but never whole school systems. No one wants to take a fundamentally different approach throughout an entire school district or take the risk of being labeled too daring.

Instead, we've seen innovation a few classrooms at a time. This result: a plethora of programs that sometimes show good results but are small, usually not evaluated thoroughly and often conducted under ideal conditions (hand-picked teachers, hand-picked students, generous foundation budgets) that cannot be replicated.

Baltimore's public schools provide a case in point. Suburban school systems may have reputations for being "innovative," but the city schools, perhaps feeling they have less to lose, show more willingness to try interesting ideas. A partial list:

* A recent issue of Education Week cited four noteworthy national efforts at bottom-up, one-school-at-a-time innovation, and two of them are operating in Baltimore: the Success for All program, run by Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University at several city schools, and the Coalition of Essential Schools, run by Theodore Sizer of Brown University at Walbrook High.

* Richard Hunter's superintendency foundered over his reluctance to try the private Calvert School curriculum at Barclay Elementary. Dr. Hunter is gone; the program continues.

* The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation embarked on a program to reform middle school education in five large urban school systems; Calverton and West Baltimore Middle are participating.

* Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's office launched a "restructuring" experiment in 14 schools, designed to encourage the schools to make more decisions about how they are run.

* The mayor's office also worked with neighborhood "clusters" of schools in East Baltimore (the "Dunbar cluster") and Cherry Hill.

* The city has contracted with one private company, Sylvan Learning Systems, to conduct remedial reading programs and with another to run nine "Tesseract" schools completely.

More experiments are on the way: the Transformation Project of the Fund for Educational Excellence, announced Wednesday, and the "enterprise schools" experiment recommended by a management consultant. Both are designed to let schools make more decisions independent of the central administration; neither sounds all that different from the mayor's "restructuring" initiative.

Where are these experiments taking schools?

They could be seen as a rich menu of educational choices, but, unfortunately, the effect is more a confusing array of programs with similar-sounding names and uncertain results. While top-down education reform seldom trickles down to the classroom-level, bottom-up efforts at individual schools seldom lead to systemic improvement.

City educators should be applauded for their willingness to try new things. But there has been no systematic effort to figure out what is working and what is not. Walter G. Amprey, city school superintendent for a year and a half, admitted it took him several months just to get a list of the various experimental programs in city schools.

Each of these programs was worth trying, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. As school systems continue to pursue innovative programs, they need to draw conclusions at the end of each experiment so they learn from and copy the good while they discard the bad.

Tomorrow: Charting a Future for Schools

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