Don't blame teachers for schools' problems

October 25, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

"I've been teaching high school in the city for 25 years," Clarissa Price is saying, "and each year I've seen a decline in the basic skills of my kids. Each year, more and more kids seem to lack the fundamentals."

"But why is this happening?" I ask.

"I'm not sure," answers Ms. Price, a home economics teacher at Lake Clifton High School. "It is happening for a variety of reasons, I guess. I do know that everything begins in the home. I don't see the type of reinforcement from parents that we used to see.

"But we can't put all of the blame on parents," Ms. Price continues. "Every new administration will come in with a different idea to improve test scores. There will be this big push one year and then the next year we'll hear no more about it. And then, a few years later a new administration will come in with some new gimmick."

I had telephoned Ms. Price at her home Sunday. It was about 7.30 p.m. Twilight was falling on what had been a beautiful autumn day. "Sixty Minutes," "America's Funniest Home Videos," and a feature on vampires, witches and werewolves were on television.

Yet when I reached her, Ms. Price had not been watching TV or walking in the park. She had been doing her lesson plans.

"I've been working on school work since about 4 p.m.," she says matter-of-factly. "Most of my colleagues [at Lake Clifton] are really dedicated to their jobs and to their children," she continues.

"It has meant changing some of the things we do to meet the changing needs of our students. It has meant adjusting our attitudes about our profession. But if we weren't dedicated we wouldn't be here. We certainly don't teach in the city to become rich."

I suspect Ms. Price wasn't the only city teacher who took work home this weekend. Teachers also put in extra classroom hours without compensation. They buy supplies using money from their own pockets. They go beyond the call of duty on behalf of their students in ways we cannot measure.

That is why I was profoundly saddened last week when Superintendent Walter G. Amprey lashed out at the teachers union for criticizing the system's privatization efforts. It is the teachers who have held this system together; they have persevered despite decades of official neglect and through the most recent years of frantic experimentation and change. All things considered, it is a miracle anyone learned anything in this city.

Yet, at a news conference Wednesday, Dr. Amprey accused the Baltimore Teachers Union of pursuing its own narrow interests at the expense of city students.

Dr. Amprey was responding to the union's demand for an end to the city's partnership with the private, for-profit firm, Education Alternatives Inc., after a report that standardized student test scores had declined at schools run by EAI, while rising throughout the rest of the system. The company disputes those findings and the city has hired an independent contractor to evaluate the program.

While some may disagree with the union's position, there is no reason to question its dedication to kids. But the superintendent was voicing an attitude that appears common among city officials: Teachers are the biggest roadblock to education reform.

Says BTU president Irene Dandridge: "Dr. Amprey and some members of the school board have been going all over the world talking about what he could do if he wasn't hampered by the union contract. Well, we sort of feel vindicated, now."

Fact is, teachers are not the problem with city schools. Two years ago, a consultant cited as a major problem the seemingly endless "management changes and organizational restructurings," which have had little impact on the quality of education.

The report pointed to the system's limited resources and to a system-wide culture of mediocrity. The consultant recommended that the system place greater authority in the hands of principals, teachers and parents at individual schools.

To his credit, the superintendent has embraced that concept and worked to make it so. But making teachers scapegoats is a step in the opposite direction.

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