Can Schools Exceed Expectations?

November 18, 1993

The recently released Maryland school performance report cards were stimulating -- students performed better than in the previous year -- but also sobering: The city and counties stack up exactly as one might expect.

School systems with the healthiest socio-economic surroundings -- the most money, the most college graduates, the most parental involvement -- perform best. Schools in places with the most poverty and social problems do the worst. In the Baltimore metropolitan area, the most affluent suburb, Howard, is followed by the less affluent suburbs, followed by urbanizing Baltimore County, followed by Baltimore City.

The purpose of the state performance tests is not to pit one jurisdiction against another. Like the students themselves, the state's 24 school systems must progress at their own pace, focusing on their own problems.

Still, the test results beg the question: Can our schools do any better than the hands that they are dealt? Surely, there are individual success stories, of good students from struggling households and drug-ridden neighborhoods. But can the schools themselves or even entire school systems outperform the economic conditions in their midst?

Baltimore County Superintendent Stuart Berger recalls being amused at getting congratulations for the rise in test scores in Frederick County when he headed that county's school system, because he knew much of the improvement was inexorably linked to the affluence encroaching into the county from suburban Washington. (Conversely, Dr. Berger now has to be concerned for a different situation: Baltimore County schools must improve in the face of sliding demographics.)

Education spending might not be able to overcome socio-economics, but the disparity in funding between rich and poor only widens the gap. Because three giants (Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore counties) spend so much more than the rest, three-quarters of the state's school systems -- 19 of 24 -- actually fall below the state average for spending per pupil. Because of this, the disbursement of education funding is being looked at again.

Money (at least, in the dosages Maryland can afford) won't be a cure-all. Ultimately, our schools are going to have to outperform their surroundings. In various ways, the schools are asking students to realize that "smart isn't something you are, it's something you become." The state's school systems will have to prove that lesson themselves.

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