Reforming School

M. WILLIAM SALGANIK

July 31, 1993|By M. WILLIAM SALGANIK

In my nightmare, I am writing the same editorial over and over again:

Somebody is promising that [name of program here] will really shake up education, cause teachers to rethink the way they do things, prepare our children for the 21st century. Doesn't anyone remember? [Name of program here] has been tried before. It didn't do all the good stuff its supporters promised. (It also didn't do all the bad stuff its opponents warned about.) It won't work this time either, unless somebody figures out why it didn't work ++ last time and how to do it differently.

Only it isn't a nightmare. It's my job.

A local school superintendent or the state superintendent or the U.S. Secretary of Education proposes new programs, new standards, new tests, new technology. I praise the effort, but express skepticism about whether it will work this time, when similar things have been tried in the past and didn't seem to matter much.

The longer I write about education, the more cynical I get. Sometimes, it seems like nothing fundamental changes about the schools. At other times, it seems like there are changes, but they don't lead anywhere; they are just a continual series of oscillating over-reactions to previous policies. (In particular, there seems to be a metronomic swing between ''maintaining standards'' and ''giving everyone a chance.'')

That's not to say nothing ever changes. But changes tend to be small and at the margins. New programs show promise, some individu al schools seem to get better, but troubled systems remain troubled.

Can schools really be changed, and, if so, how? Could, for example, Stuart Berger, the bent-on-change superintendent in Baltimore County, have accomplished more if he ''sold'' his programs better to the public?

We have an interesting laboratory here. Dr. Berger in Baltimore County is determined to make changes, and he is creating a furor in the process. Walter G. Amprey in Baltimore City is making changes that are even more dramatic, and causing a lot less controversy.

Dr. Berger's direct and sometimes abrasive style contrasts with the indirection of Dr. Amprey. But that's only a small part of the story.

The city is quieter because there's a consensus that the city schools are not performing well. There may be complaints from groups affected by change -- teacher aides, for example, were unhappy about the lack of a role for them in the ''Tesseract'' schools being run by a private contractor. But in general, there's a feeling that trying something can't hurt.

In Baltimore County, there are many more people who think the school system as a whole, or the school or program attended by their own kids, works reasonably well.

Some of this is natural. The annual Gallup Poll on education always shows that people think American schools in general are not doing very well, but the schools in their community are pretty good and the school their own kid attends is just fine. And it seems that whenever a school is considered for closing, parents say the school is terrific (even if, objec tively, the building is dilapidated and achievement is low).

Beyond this natural comfort with what parents are familiar with, there are certainly enough good things happening in the Baltimore County schools that parents and teachers can see the glass as half full, while Dr. Berger says it is half empty.

RTC It ain't broke, lots of parents say, so don't fix it.

That has truly scary implications for reform. What if an institution is a little bit broken? Can it be fixed before it gets worse? Or do things have to get really terrible before there is a consensus for change? And by that time, might things be beyond fixing?

Looked at another way, it may be too late to fix Baltimore City schools. I don't want to believe it's too late, I don't think state and local officials can act as if it's too late, but there is no evidence that a system the size of Baltimore's, with the problems of Baltimore's, has ever been ''turned around.''

On the other hand, it may be too early to fix Baltimore County schools. There clearly are problems, but there's not a broad consensus for change.

So the question we have to face is: Is there a right time to fix an institution, a time that's not too early and not too late?

We have to keep trying; we can't afford not to. But we haven't learned enough from the failed reforms of the past to make the reforms of the future really work.

M. William Salganik, a former education writer, edits the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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