Judgment First, Evidence Later

April 16, 1994|By M. WILLIAM SALGANIK

Martin O'Malley, a Baltimore city councilman, was complaining about lack of improvement in student achievement in the first year for the nine ''Tesseract'' schools -- schools run by a private firm under contract to the city.

''I only have a four-year term,'' he said, ''so my time for patience is growing thin.''

He's not alone. Patience is quite thin all around.

The Tesseract experiment (the name comes from a children's science fiction book) is now nearing the end of its second year. Achievement-test results are available only from the first year. The school department is still in the process of launching the first independent evaluation of the program. Yet both supporters and opponents have hurried to draw conclusions.

''This company is making significant headway,'' Mayor Schmoke said March 9, as the Board of Estimates approved a new contract for Education Alternatives, Inc. (EAI) of Minneapolis, which runs the Tesseract schools.

Walter G. Amprey, the city school superintendent, has encouraged management contracts for EAI at three schools beyond the original (and, as yet, not independently evaluated) nine.

Meanwhile, opponents attack EAI relentlessly.

''I think . . . the emperor's clothes are getting kind of old,'' said Mary Pat Clarke, the City Council president. ''I don't see the results.'' (Mrs. Clarke has announced she will be running for Mr. Schmoke's job next year.)

'''Student Achievement Declines in EAI Schools,'' says a report by the American Federation of Teachers, based on first-year achievement tests.

''Privatized Schools Don't Measure Up, Report Says,'' was the headline on a press release from the Maryland State Teachers Association.

School reform shouldn't be too slow, but it can't be too fast, either. Plans need to be developed. Materials need to be purchased. Teachers need to be trained, and to stick with a program long enough to get comfortable using it. And rigorous evaluation needs to be done.

There are good reasons to retain some skepticism toward the Tesseract experiment. The school department's own evaluation raised questions about the handling of federal funds for special-education and remedial programs. EAI had promised three ''Personal Education Plans'' for each student during the first year, but the report found all three plans were developed (and signed by parents) for only 11 percent of students.

An MSTA report questioned whether EAI was really delivering on promised innovative teaching methods. While EAI's brochure talked about kindergarten students building model houses in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, the report said, a classroom observer had found kindergarteners watching cartoons on television.

The AFT's report on Tesseract found that ''student standardized achievement test scores dropped substantially in the eight EAI elementary schools while other city schools showed modest progress.''

While this should be enough to make Dr. Amprey and Mayor Schmoke cautious, it is hardly proof that Tesseract is already a failure. The MSTA observations were based on only three of the schools, visited for a total of two days.

The school department's internal evaluation and the AFT's analysis were based on the Tesseract's first year of operation (the 1992-93 school year), which even EAI would say had its rocky moments.

The agreement between the schools and EAI was reached in June 1992, so little set-up work could be done before school was out. When teachers and students returned in September, EAI became embroiled in a dispute with the Baltimore Teachers Union. EAI wanted to replace teacher aides (represented by the union) with ''interns'' who would be paid less. The dispute delayed the hiring of the interns until mid-year and put a crimp in teacher training. Also, EAI was slow to get computers -- which it says are an important part of its instructional plan -- into the schools. When the students were tested in the spring, it shouldn't come as a great surprise that test scores didn't go up.

The lesson here is that if we expect education reform to be done right, we can't also expect it to be done within a four-year election cycle. We need patience -- and we need it right away.

M. William Salganik, editor of the Perspective section of The Sun, is a former education writer.

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