Educator wants schools to give value

September 01, 1994|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The lights are always on in Christopher Cross' office at the Council for Basic Education in Washington. It's for the plant over in the corner, a tender living thing that needs constant light, says the new president of the Maryland state Board of Education.

The plant appears to be thriving, no doubt because of Mr. Cross' careful tending and his calculation that so much water and 24-hour-a-day illumination will make a healthy specimen.

That's also the way Mr. Cross looks at schools. Basic input creates solid output, Mr. Cross says. And you need "performance indicators" -- a fancy phrase for tests -- because without student testing "we don't know what we're doing with our investment in schools."

Mr. Cross, 54, became president of the council (a paid job) and of the Maryland board (unpaid) in a span of six days in July. As its name implies, the council lobbies for national reform in education that promotes basic academic subjects. Education, Mr. Cross says, is not about "getting students to love everybody in the world. That's important, but it's not what schools do."

Meanwhile, the state board Mr. Cross joined only a year ago -- he was recruited by then-board President Robert C. Embry Jr. and state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick -- has embarked on a reform effort that has Maryland's 1,254 schools scrambling to meet tougher academic standards or face the consequences -- possible "reconstitution" by state authorities.

Other new measures are aimed at improving teacher education and weeding out incompetent teachers.

Mr. Cross has seen the program, and he likes it. It's pretty much what a well-run business would do, he says.

Mr. Cross worked for the Business Roundtable in the early 1990s after more than two decades influencing education policy inside and outside the government. He was assistant secretary for educational research in the Bush administration.

"We have to be sure that schools are providing value from whatever their starting point," he says, "whether it's a high school in Montgomery or one in Baltimore."

In Washington, Mr. Cross is known as thoughtful and accommodating. "He's well-informed and wonderfully skilled with people," says Michael Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington-based organization that trains school leaders. "He's not a rabble-rouser, not a sensationalist. And though he's associated with the Republicans, he's really a moderate."

Unknown factor

Maryland Mr. Cross is an unknown factor. He's an inside-the-Washington-Beltway policy specialist with almost no experience at the local school level beyond PTA meetings at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, which his 16-year-old son attends.

Susan Buswell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, states her concern diplomatically: "We look forward to working with Mr. Cross. We want to help him understand what local boards are dealing with. A lot has happened in a short period of time, and we're struggling with it."

Mr. Cross lives in Montgomery County, a wealthy subdivision that contrasts sharply with singularly unwealthy Baltimore City. When, as expected, Baltimore files a suit challenging the state school finance formula, Mr. Cross, as state board president, will be the first-named defendant.

He is cautious on the rich-poor argument, choosing words carefully.

"Washington, D.C., spends . . . something like $9,000 a student. Yet few would argue that the school system in D.C. is efficiently managed, or that by spending $9,000 on every student you should have the best school system available. To me, you have to look at where and how the money is being spent."

Money difference

Baltimore's average expenditure for each student, about $5,600 a year, is nearly $2,500 less than Montgomery's, says Mr. Cross. "If you multiply that difference by 30 students in a classroom, you're talking about $75,000 a class in terms of the difference in available funds. That means a lot. Money does make a difference, but I want to look inside Baltimore City to see where spending is going on and to see, for example, if the best teachers are available to the poorest kids."

Mr. Cross is likely to lead an assault on the traditional way Maryland schools use time. He was a member of the National Commission on Time and Learning, which recommended last spring that American students spend more time in academic classes and that school districts lengthen both the school day and year. Students in Japan and industrialized Europe spend much more time than their American counterparts studying the basic subjects, the commission said.

Creative use of time

The "Carnegie unit" -- one unit takes a year of study in a subject -- has "become almost a mystical symbol of education," Mr. Cross says. "But in the end it's not the Carnegie unit that's important, but whether a student learns something. We need to look not only at the Carnegie unit, but at more creative ways of using time in schools."

"I admire Chris, but his commission study stinks," says Baltimore County Superintendent Stuart D. Berger. "The problem isn't the time spent. It's what happens while the time is being spent. Why spend more time doing the wrong things?"

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