State School Seizure Plan: Governor and Board Shift the Blame

April 17, 1994|By ROGER KUHN

State seizure of local schools is an attempt by the governor and his appointed State Board of Education to centralize power while decentralizing responsibility.

It's the final step of the Maryland School Performance Program, a blame-shifting scheme that holds the individual school responsible for low student test scores, as if the school were an independent enterprise controlled by its faculty.

Nothing, of course, is further from the truth. Take, for example, the first two high schools the State Board of Education has marked for seizure. Both are Baltimore "zoned" schools that must take whatever students show up at the door. But their students are not a cross section of the high-school-age population in their attendance zone or the city at large. They are what's left over after "creaming."

Denied authority to set any entrance requirements, these two high schools -- Frederick Douglass and Patterson -- must take children who cannot make it into the "citywide" academic and trade schools, which admit students according to rank by test scores and attendance records.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out, then, why the zoned schools score low on state tests. The school board has a policy of assigning them lower-ranked kids. So, these schools will, by design, have more problems than the schools the board doesn't send problem kids to.

Douglass High, for example, could instantly get off the seizure list by a simple shift in the way the school board assigns students to schools. High-scoring City College high school could end up on the bottom, and low-scoring Douglass shoot to the top. Test scores are measures of student, not faculty, performance -- as anyone who has attended school knows.

By threatening the local school with state seizure and privatization, the governor and his business buddies on the state board cast the blame on the institution least able to deliver the extra taxation, resources and services needed to offset the disadvantages that poor, low-scoring kids bring to school. It's a strategy to avert the blame at the top. After refusing to set, fund and enforce opportunity-to-learn standards for kids of the underclass, they demand that these kids meet the same performance standards as more advantaged children -- or else.

The higher concentration of truant, disruptive, and learning-disabled children at zoned high schools is the downside of a school choice policy that begins in middle school. It is really a seven-year citywide tracking system that performs triage for an urban school system that otherwise would lose many more of its able middle-class students to suburban and private schools. From the sixth grade, parents are given a choice of sending children to their neighborhood school or to citywide magnet schools.

By high school, 48 percent (10,525) of Baltimore students are skimmed off to citywide magnet schools with entrance requirements. The leftover 52 percent attend 10 zoned schools with no entrance requirements.

A comparison of student data reveals dramatic differences between student bodies at a citywide and a zoned high school:

School .. ..% .. Chronic .. .. Dropout.. .. College.. ..11th Gr.. .. Avg

. .. .. ..Poor..Absentees.. .. Rate.. .. .. Ready .. .. Funct. ..Attend.

.. .. .. .. .. .. ..(%)... .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Math

City College ..29.5 .. 25.3 .. .. ..2.6 .. .. ..92.5 .. .. 98.9 .. .. ..90.8

Douglass High .62.5 .. 74.3 .. .. 38.7 .. .. ..10.2 .. .. 62.5 .. .. ..71.9 The figures do not show the numbers of tardy students at zoned schools,who interrupt classes in session or mill in the hallways outside. Patterson recently required first-period latecomers to register in the cafeteria and remain until the next period. On any given day, some 150 students will be found there during first period.

The attendance figures themselves are misleading, for they do not reflect students who are marked present in one class -- only to mill in the hallways the rest of the day, daring faculty to ask them to move to their next class. Others simply leave campus before the end of the school day.

Nor do the figures show the high number of students whom judges have paroled to the school. More than 10 percent of Patterson students have done "serious jail time," according to faculty members. "The judge can make me come here, but he can't make me listen to you," snarled one student recently to a teacher.

The absurdity of the MSPP program is that it blames the school faculty for being assigned a low-scoring student body. Instead of saying to the faculty, "You've got a tough job. How can we help?" the state bureaucrats threaten to hand the school over to a private contractor.

It's not that faculties haven't requested help, especially for the majority of students who are motivated or might become motivated in a safe and stable environment. But downtown politicians and bureaucrats ignore faculty requests while demanding "accountability."

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