The messages of Amprey and Berger

September 13, 1993

The most intriguing contrast these days between the superintendents in Baltimore city and county is not that Walter Amprey, the city school chief, is on an emotional high after being considered for the New York City chancellor's job, and that Stuart Berger, the county school chief, has been battered by critics most of the summer.

Nor is it that Dr. Amprey tends to be slow to erupt, while Dr. Berger is more volatile. Nor even that the sartorial Dr. Amprey tends toward French cuffs, while the rumpled Dr. Berger sometimes forgets to wear a tie.

What's really worth considering are the disparate messages that these two energetic educational leaders are pitching to their constituencies.

Dr. Amprey's theme this school year is "efficacy" -- the well-grounded notion that children are not born intelligent and curious, they are made so. The superintendent has been influenced by educator Jeffrey Howard, who preaches the power of positive thinking from his non-profit Efficacy Institute in Massachusetts. Dr. Amprey plans to spend up to $400,000 to impart the institute's message to teachers and other staffers in the city system.

Even before that instruction reaches full flower, though, one can detect Dr. Amprey spreading this good gospel like a farmer crop-dusting his field. When remarking on an unrelated comparison between city and county test score results, Dr. Amprey made sure to remind listeners that suburban students are "different, not better." He also recently got some billboards erected to advertise the message, "Smart is not something you are . . . Smart is something you become."

Dr. Berger, on the other hand, has been sounding a much different clarion since he arrived in Baltimore County last summer: That the jurisdiction's school system isn't as good as it has assured itself over the years. He is certainly not saying that the students are stupid or the staff is bad. Rather, he's suggesting that the system may have gotten complacent, basing its preparations on a vision of Baltimore County in the '60s and '70s, rather than the more urban, diverse, complex, older suburb it has become. He was instantly dubious of the evaluations of staff in the system's files, which were so routinely radiant one suspected a rubber stamp at work. In fact, it was his lack of faith in the system's ability to judge itself critically that led to his controversial decision last spring to effect a wholesale transfer of principals.

While quite dissimilar, there is nothing wrong in the approaches of Dr. Amprey or Dr. Berger to confront the unique challenges facing their schools. The two leaders are simply employing very different means to reach the same end.

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