UMBC center to evaluate city's 'Tesseract' schools

August 18, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Gary Gately | JoAnna Daemmrich and Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writers

More than two years after Education Alternatives Inc. took over nine Baltimore schools, the city chose an independent evaluator yesterday to assess the "Tesseract" venture.

Evaluating the remainder of the five-year experiment in school privatization falls to the Center for Educational Research at the University of Maryland Baltimore County -- the sole bidder even after the city extended its search for a consultant.

Under the $207,560 contract approved yesterday by the Board of Estimates, the UMBC center will analyze progress in Tesseract schools.

"I think it's a challenging project. It's of great interest locally and nationally, and the results will be of significance," said Lois C. Williams, the center's associate director who will serve as principal researcher.

Dr. Williams and Lawrence Leak, a professor at Towson State University, have formed a team to spend the next two years observing classes, analyzing test scores and meeting with teachers, interns and school principals in "focus groups."

The company will compare test results, attendance and "school climate" with nine control schools and issue reports twice a year.

In addition, the researchers plan to analyze test results since the for-profit Minneapolis firm began running the schools under a contract worth $27 million annually.

Limited, incomplete reviews have shown mixed results since the fall of 1992. Overall average test scores for the eight elementary schools this spring declined in reading and rose slightly in math, compared with the year before EAI took over.

The results drew radically different interpretations from opponents and defenders of EAI.

School officials called the results encouraging. But union leaders, teachers and some Baltimore City Council members demanded a halt to the Tesseract venture, saying it is diverting millions from other public schools to an unproven experiment.

Amid the mounting criticism this spring, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke ruled out any immediate expansion of EAI's role, even of noninstructional services. The company has already won contracts to provide services except for teaching at three other schools. From the beginning, Mr. Schmoke said the city would hold off expanding the full Tesseract program until the completion of an outside evaluation.

The city sought bids from education research and accounting firms earlier this year but drew only one reply. In an attempt to attract some competitors, city officials reopened the bidding -- but again only received a response from the UMBC center by the June 1 deadline.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the Board of Estimates, the panel that awards city contracts, cast the only dissenting vote. She also was the only board member to abstain from hiring KPMG Peat Marwick to run the school system's finance department until a new finance director is hired.

"I'm not certain what of product we'll be getting for that kind of money," she said afterward of the EAI review. "I've got layoffs all around me and that's $207,000 for a consultant to provide a report that I think is a little too late."

The Baltimore Teachers Union also expressed concern that only one group bid on the review. "We'll have to go in optimistically, but we're a little concerned because so much is hinging on this evaluation," said spokeswoman Linda Prudente.

Some educators said privately that few companies even considered seeking the job of assessing Tesseract, in large part because intense political pressures would make an objective analysis impossible.

In June, when the city had gotten only one proposal again, Mayor Schmoke acknowledged that some firms were daunted by the prospect that their research would become the center of a political battle.

A number of City Council members said yesterday that they're eager to see an outside review of the controversial program. Fourth District Democrat Sheila Dixon said independent research will determine whether the EAI schools have shown the significant improvements needed to warrant any further expansion.

And Councilman Carl Stokes, a 2nd District Democrat who chairs the council's education committee, said, "I think we're looking for an objective overview of whether the methods are working and are the students showing demonstrable gain."

Even if the schools show great improvement, however, he opposes further expansion of EAI's role. Instead, Mr. Stokes said, the city then should learn a lesson from Tesseract and improve all the public schools on its own.

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