At a time of growing clamor to better prepare teachers and root out incompetence among them, Baltimore's school district provides virtually no training and consistently protects the jobs of bad teachers, a school watchdog group said yesterday.
Despite years of dismal test scores, attendance and dropout rates, the report notes, almost every teacher in the district continually receives good or excellent evaluations.
In a 60-page report, an affiliate of the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth calls for an immediate overhaul of what it portrays as an irrelevant, fragmented and inconsistent training and evaluation system.
"Better Teaching: The Key to Meaningful School Reform" blames the failure to adequately train, evaluate and, when necessary, fire teachers for many shortcomings of the city school system, by far the worst in the state judging by key measures.
"If no change is made in the way in which Baltimore City teachers are evaluated and supported, the future which we will all share will be considerably darker," warns the report by Students First, part of the Baltimore-based child advocacy group. "Teachers . . . are the foundation upon which any effort to improve student performance must be built."
But, the report says, the evaluation system remains "irrelevant to improving the quality of education" and ignores student performance as a measure of teacher effectiveness.
Between 1988 and 1993, more than 98 percent of the city's estimated 6,000 teachers received "satisfactory," "good" or "superior" annual evaluations, nearly half of them superior. About 10 percent of teachers have not been evaluated as required by principals each year, leaving only 0.5 percent who received unsatisfactory ratings. And in the five-year span, the city dismissed only six teachers for incompetence -- of only 19 dismissed for any reason.
High-profile reorganizations have continually flowed from North Avenue headquarters for decades, overshadowing the much more crucial need for training and evaluation, said Christopher S. Lambert, Students First director. "Unless you make the first priority what's happening in the classroom, reorganization is meaningless," he said.
The report coincides with a national movement toward rooting out teacher incompetence. In June, Maryland's school board decided to strip certification from those who receive three unsatisfactory evaluations in any five-year period, joining a handful of other states trying to end what amounts to lifetime certification.
No staff development
The report also faults the city's 113,000-student district for failing to provide any systemwide staff development, to monitor teacher training to identify gaps, or to intervene to correct them. Some schools maintain exemplary staff development programs, the report says, but most of Baltimore's teachers receive little training beyond cursory workshops.
Today, training is particularly crucial, as Baltimore's teaching staff is becoming younger and less-experienced. About two-thirds of all teachers will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, and more new teachers enter through non-traditional paths such as alternative certifications for midlife career changers, meaning they come to the jobs with no teacher education.
Superintendent Walter G. Amprey acknowledged serious shortcomings in both training and evaluation of teachers but said the school system is working to overcome them.
"There needs to be much more evaluation of staff, all staff, to make everyone accountable," said Dr. Amprey, now in his fourth year. "And in terms of training, there really hasn't been anything."
Without thorough evaluations and training to help teachers overcome deficiencies, he said, it would be unfair to fire teachers for incompetence.
Dr. Amprey said all city teachers will be assessed this school year based on a new, streamlined evaluation form. It will replace a complex form that permitted a teacher to receive an overall rating of "satisfactory" despite being judged unsatisfactory in key areas such as "instructional methods" and appraising "student learning needs."
Staff orientation begun
The superintendent, who began his career as a teacher in city schools, noted that the district launched an unprecedented five-day orientation for teachers and other staff this fall and is working with the Greater Baltimore Committee to provide more training to principals.
But he admits the system's failure to devise an effective teacher training program has been one of the biggest frustrations of his tenure.
He said he agreed with the report's recommendations for overhauling staff development, including calls for thorough training in creating lesson plans; using technological advances; and dealing with poverty, violence and other urban ills. The report also recommends that all teachers be required to become "scholars" in their subject areas -- and prove it in comprehensive assessments.
Irene Dandridge, Baltimore Teachers Union president, also agreed with the report's findings.
"We've had five superintendents over 15 years, and every one has started in on this reorganization and that reorganization," she said. "But not one of these superintendents, including Dr. Amprey, has gotten down to the classroom level."
She noted that spending for systemwide staff development had been cut this year from about $1.3 million to $800,000.
But Dr. Amprey said that money has been shifted to the schools from headquarters as part of the move to school-based management. Thus, he said, individual schools will be responsible for devising more staff development efforts, and principals will be evaluated in part on their success in doing so.