Taking schools private

February 09, 1994|By Walter G. Amprey

On Jan. 21, Other Voices published excerpts from a critical report on Baltimore's Tesseract schools written by a consultant engaged by the Maryland State Teachers Association. Four days later, Walter G. Amprey, Baltimore superintendent of schools, testified before a U.S. Senate committee on "The Role of Private Management Companies in School Reform." These are excerpts from his testimony.

URBAN schools are in serious trouble. We need only look at the crime statistics of the inner cities to see that we, as educators, and we, as a society, have failed a generation of children. We need only look at the dismal landscape of the streets to see our failure in flesh and blood. And that failure is spreading well beyond the city limits.

Over the past 25 years, public schools have been sinking in a quagmire of rules, procedures and policies. Most were well-intentioned. Most were designed to bring about success and stave off the decline of the schools. Some now exist just to preserve the bureaucracy. As a result, we have created an educational gridlock that will take forever to untangle if we are to develop a positive direction for the schools.

Being mired in old ways of thinking has created one of the most serious problems of this nation's public schools: We have lost true accountability. No one is held truly accountable for the success of the schools -- or the success of a single child. The consequences show in our young people, who have no childhood and no future.

We are looking to the private sector to help us achieve management accountability and apply cost-effective strategies to our operations. This "privatization" is being called a controversial "trend" in public administration. Privatization, however, is not a new concept. Public schools have always sought services, supplies and resources from the private sector. (After all, we do not get our pencils from foundations.)

In Baltimore, this is the second year of a $133 million contract with Education Alternatives Inc., a private firm that is overseeing the management and instruction of nine schools. Two other schools also have contracted with EAI to assist them with management. While our partnership has had its difficulties, I believe that such contracts show that we can do things differently -- with positive results.

What attracted me most about EAI was the "Tesseract" approach to instruction. When I first saw Tesseract in action, I saw an educational model that ensured student success -- where every child had a personal education plan. I saw two adults in every classroom. I saw a program based on the philosophy that all students have talents and gifts, a program that improved the climate for instruction in every classroom and used high technology to achieve its goals. I saw a program that worked for the children, a program that guaranteed true accountability.

From both an operational and philosophical point of view, the Tesseract program pierces the once-stolid, immovable educational bureaucracy. I saw that a private company could untie our hands and accomplish what I could not -- and could xTC provide better service. As a result, I have asked EAI to teach us "the Tesseract Way" of doing business. This is the enterprise spirit that has made America what it is. It is the same spirit that can help us solve the crisis of the schools by re-energizing us and encouraging us to think creatively to solve problems.

Our first-year, internal evaluation of our partnership with EAI reveals significant, positive change in several areas. We are seeing a dramatic improvement in grounds and facilities maintenance. We are also encouraged by an increased level of parent involvement in the Tesseract schools and by computerized instruction that has been tailored for each student. We believe that it is too early to expect significant improvement in student achievement and attendance, but we will be monitoring classroom performance closely.

While there are operational issues to resolve, Tesseract has opened the door to other new approaches to public education in Baltimore. For example, we have contracted with Sylvan Learning Systems to work with Chapter 1 schools. We are also piloting an "enterprise" concept in 24 schools this year. We intend to create a "market-driven," entrepreneurial approach to school management that rewards creativity and innovation. In September, all of our schools will become "Enterprise Schools," a structure that gives school staffs greater authority to make decisions about their budgets and instructional programs. This also gives them both the responsibility and accountability for success in their classrooms. It is only in classrooms where true, long-lasting school reform can -- and must -- occur.

Radical change often creates controversy. EAI -- and privatization in general -- have detractors in Baltimore. But I believe that those who object to these approaches also have difficulty with understanding -- and accepting -- true accountability. Overall, our experiences with private management have been positive and should certainly benefit children.

No innovation or unique approach will succeed unless we first reform our approach to children and to the learning process. We must put the children first. We must use all forces we can in the best interest of young people. We must give young people hope and a future.

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