The right way -- and the wrong

May 17, 1994

Without a lot of fanfare last week, the Baltimore City school system received a $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation for a five-year effort to improve science and math instruction. The grant is part of an urban science program initiated by the foundation, an arm of the federal government, and it demonstrates that Washington is putting some money where its mouth has been for 15 years.

During those years, the crisis in urban mathematics and science education deepened, as measured by declining test scores and a diminishing number of minority students pursuing higher studies in math and science. Federal officials acknowledged the problem, but acknowledging it and doing something about it are different matters.

Much of the money will go to train city teachers in the latest techniques and developments in their ever-changing fields and to tap into science-oriented Baltimore resources such as the National Aquarium, Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Science Center. If the effort encourages more students to sign up for science and math courses -- at a time when technological skills are rapidly becoming survival skills in the economy of the 1990s -- so much the better. And if it helps students to better negotiate algebra, now required of eighth graders, and biology, chemistry and physics, required of all high school students, that's a plus, too.

The grant is carefully designed so that Baltimore and the other urban recipients can carry on with the program after federal aid is cut off. This is an example of what the federal government can do best. It ought not to be providing general aid to local districts in perpetuity. Rather, it ought to be carefully targeting its aid to where it is needed most.

This is also an example of how best to improve education: Put some money in, train teachers in a carefully thought out program using outside experts (in this case, NSF mathematicians and scientists and Morgan State University educators).

An example of how not to improve education is the current Baltimore Teachers Union's petition drive to limit class size in city schools. The city charter, which the BTU seeks to amend to limit classes to specific numbers, is not the appropriate vehicle for imposing policy decisions on the school board and administration. Moreover, if the petition drive succeeded, it would commit the city to hiring hundreds of teachers at a cost of millions of dollars. The city Law Department already has determined that it would be illegal to amend the charter for this purpose.

City teachers do need all the help they can get. Some aid is coming from the NSF, but the union drive is simply foolish.

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