Parents give schools good marks

August 10, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Despite two years of change and unrest, Baltimore County schools still get high marks from parents.

In fact, a $9,500 poll commissioned by the school system this summer showed that Baltimore County parents mirror their peers nationwide in evaluating their children's education.

Overall, 58 percent of the parents surveyed gave the county schools "A's" and "B's", while 70 percent gave their oldest child's school the same high marks.

Those were almost identical to the grades parents gave their schools nationally when they were asked the same questions in a benchmark 1993 Gallup poll.

The Baltimore County survey found that 63 percent of the parents were satisfied that the county schools were "doing a good job of preparing students for the 21st century," while 29 percent were dissatisfied and 8 percent had no opinion.

"I think the results are surprising. I would have expected there to be more contention than there is, perhaps more dissatisfaction than there is," Superintendent Stuart Berger said at a press conference yesterday.

There was contention from the teachers' union, whose spokesman called the questions and findings "too general" to justify the expense.

"We don't find this to be significant," said Terry Zahren of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. "A lot of money was spent for no reason."

The school system hired Hollander Cohen & McBride, a Towson market research firm, to conduct the survey. From school system rolls, the pollsters called a sample of 509 parents between June 16 and June 28. The sample was balanced to provide roughly 100 parents from each of the system's five administrative districts.

The size of the sample gives the overall results a margin of error of 3 percent to 5 percent. This means there's a 95 percent chance that results from similar samples would fall within 3 percentage points to 5 percentage points of the results from a survey of all parents.

Some of the questions were taken from the national 1993 Phi Delta Kappa Gallup Poll on public attitudes toward schools, allowing the pollster to compare local and national attitudes.

The findings were similar on nearly all questions. For instance, 79 percent of county parents questioned said safe and drug-free schools were "a very high priority," compared with 71 percent nationally.

Dr. Berger's staff undertook the survey to get a reading on how parents thought the schools were performing and "to be more responsive to the parents' concerns," according to spokesman Charles Herndon.

Although the survey asked specifically about outcome-based education (OBE) -- a new approach to learning that has raised hackles outside Baltimore County -- it did not query parents on inclusion of disabled children in neighborhood schools, the system's leadership or its ability to communicate with parents and teachers -- issues that have drawn considerable public criticism during Dr. Berger's tenure.

"We left open-ended questions," so as not to prompt respondents, explained assistant superintendent William Lawrence. "We wanted to gauge parents' views on schools. We were not going to make this a plebiscite on Stuart Berger."

Twenty-four percent of those questioned said maintaining standards was the "biggest problem" facing the county schools.

As described in the study, this topic was broad, including "basics not being adequately stressed, special education students being neglected, gifted and talented students being held back and concern with the grading system."

Any answers about the inclusion of disabled students in regular classrooms would have been reported in this category, Mr. Herndon said.

Tied for second among problems were lack of discipline and overcrowded schools, with 23 percent of parents citing them. Lack of money ranked fourth as a county concern, but first in the national study.

"Baltimore County parents place greater emphasis on the standards and quality of education and problems with overcrowded schools while the national response placed greater emphasis on lack of proper financial support, fighting and violence, and drug abuse," the study said.

While outcomes-based education has been a big issue in surrounding jurisdictions, only 30 percent of Baltimore County parents had even heard of the concept, and nearly half of that group said they knew nothing about it. Only 4 percent of the parents said they "knew a lot" about OBE.

The often-controversial OBE is an approach to learning that focuses on results, or outcomes, rather than on time spent in school or credits earned. A school system sets the "outcomes" and appropriate ways to measure them to try to ensure that each student is learning what he needs to succeed.

In the local survey, the handful of parents who said they knew at least something about OBE were closely divided over the effectiveness of the approach: 47 percent said it was a good idea and 41 percent said it was a bad idea.

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