Tesseract gets a poor grade

January 21, 1994

The Maryland State Teachers Association commissioned Olivia S. Reusing, a professor of education at Alvernia College in Reading, Pa., to report on Baltimore's "Tesseract" schools, those being operated by Education Alternatives Inc. of Minneapolis, a profit-making company.

Dr. Reusing, whose doctorate is in elementary and early childhood education, spent two days in December conducting interviews and classroom visits in three of the nine Tesseract schools, Malcolm X Elementary, Harlem Park Elementary and Harlem Park Middle School. She also observed Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, a non-Tesseract Baltimore City elementary school, as a basis of comparison.

Here are some excerpts from Dr. Reusing's report:

THE literature given to me when I visited the schools stresses that students engage in active learning and that teaching methods are adapted to individual learning styles in classrooms with low student-teacher ratios. . .

Although the Tesseract program's published goals, as outlined in printed materials prepared by EAI, conform to the new perspective on teaching and learning, the classroom practices I observed were more representative of the old than the new perspective. The reality that I observed in Tesseract classrooms fell short of the ideals described in Tesseract literature. For example, in one kindergarten a group of about 20 students huddled around a television screen watching cartoons while the teacher appeared to be getting the room in order. . .

In addition to the claim that Tesseract schools provide the "best teaching," EAI literature asserts the model will improve the physical plant and impart a sense of community and discipline. The administration and faculty I spoke with reported a high degree of satisfaction with improvements in food service and building maintenance provided by Johnson Controls Inc. Likewise, the attempt to create a sense of community appears to have had success, at least in the two elementary settings observed. Students observe a dress code and all seemed dressed appropriately for school. A spirit of pride in school seemed apparent.

Conditions in the middle school were quite different than in the elementary schools. While the attempt to impart a sense of community and discipline is evident in posters throughout the middle school, I observed more evidence of failure than success on this goal. Arriving early for my scheduled appointment, I walked the halls of the building for an hour. I noted that of the teacher-student interactions in classrooms which I heard from the hall, more interactions were related to discipline problems than to instruction.

Students were running through the halls, hiding in the halls and being reprimanded and counseled by staff and faculty. There were many large computer-generated posters of an inspirational nature; however, most were worn and torn. Paper and debris were on the floors of classrooms and halls. The girls' restrooms had no toilet tissue, paper towels or soap, although it must be said that upon checking, I found that neighboring public schools were also devoid of those amenities.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the physical environment in the middle school was the fact that many of the exit doors were padlocked so that one could not open them from the inside. I believe this practice may violate fire safety codes . . .

I chose the [non-Tesseract] school at random; however, after my visit there, I decided that the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School is probably not a typical Baltimore City school. The school seemed exemplary in almost every respect. . . .

This was a "Success for All" school, having implemented a model for improving student achievement based on the work of Robert Slavin, of Johns Hopkins University. In addition to the boost the school received by "Success for All," the school had benefited from some grant money and from business partnerships.

Throughout the school I saw students engaged in activities which promoted learning by doing, thinking and writing. For example, I observed a class of third graders engaged in discussions about their experiences the previous day attending the "Nutcracker" ballet, performed by an older group of their schoolmates. As preparation for writing about their experiences, they acted out certain parts of the play. What I observed was a true example of active teaching which seemed so lacking in the Tesseract schools. . .

Teaching practices and the school environment at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School more closely reflected Tesseract published goals than the privatized schools themselves.

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