Scores rise where suburbs grow


January 24, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

In education, rural is to suburban is to urban.

As poor is to excellent is to abysmal.

If you don't believe it, take a good look at the Maryland school report card released last month by the state Education Department.

The department does everything it can to avoid district-by-district comparisons, lest District X lord it over District Y. Such comparisons, in the thinking of state officials, are hardly sporting, particularly in a state that can accommodate its entire public school establishment in a high school auditorium.

There might be fist fights.

But anyone can take the report card and make the comparison. '' This newspaper did. And now that the local districts are (rather belatedly) releasing their own school-by-school results, fascinating statewide trends should be noted:

Trend No. 1: The more suburban the district, the better its schools, as measured by test results and other measurements.

Trend No. 2: Rural counties within commuting distance of cities soon become suburban, and when they do, their schools improve. The more suburban the district, the better its schools, as measured by a host of indicators, from test scores to rates of college attendance.

Trend No. 3: As suburban districts become urban, their schools deteriorate.

Consider Howard County, a rural district until James W. Rouse and a flock of upscale commuters made it a model suburb. Its schools led the state in the new report card with a 51.2 percent of students, on average, achieving "satisfactory" or better scores on the new, sophisticated state tests. No great shakes, you might say.

But look at the rest of the ranking in The Sun's list: Carroll County (formerly rural), second. Montgomery County (suburban,

believed world-class), third. Frederick (formerly rural, rapidly suburbanizing), fourth. (Frederick officials released local school scores last week with much hoopla and no qualms about bragging about the county's ranking in Maryland.)

Kent County (rural), fifth. Harford County (formerly rural, rapidly suburbanizing), sixth. Anne Arundel (suburban), seventh. Baltimore County (suburban), 10th. Prince George's (suburban, almost urban), 22nd. Baltimore City (urban), dead last. Only 11.7 percent of its students reached the satisfactory level.

There's not a 100 percent correlation here, and there may be anomalies. Kent County may be doing something right that other districts should take a look at, and rural Garrett County finished a very decent eighth on the report card. But, following the trend lines, we can predict roughly how the districts will rank at the millennium.

Frederick and Carroll will be fighting with Harford for the title of best school district in Maryland. The formerly suburban districts, Baltimore County, Prince George's, Montgomery and Anne Arundel, will be nearer the bottom. Middle-class families no longer will move to Ellicott City simply to be near Centennial. They'll move to Frederick to be near Middletown.

Why will this happen? Because school performance is directly related to family income and parents' education. Families with money and smarts tend to prefer suburban schools. (And the same kind of thing happens within districts. Anne Arundel parents prefer wealthier Broadneck over poorer Meade, Howard Countians prefer Centennial over Wilde Lake, Baltimore Countians Dulaney over Kenwood. And so on.)

But this is now; 2000 is then. The challenge for the districts not on the honor roll is to buck the trend. Is Kent County -- fifth best this year -- for real? Can a suburban-turned-urban school district reverse Trend No. 3 with an innovative plan? Can Baltimore City, with its bold moves, perform miracles? Stay tuned.

A 'matter of principle'

The public information office at the University of Maryland College Park has announced that it will decline any media requests for expertise in connection with the O.J. Simpson trial.

It's a "matter of principle," says the UM press release. "Encouraging our faculty to participate in the escalating sensationalism of the trial would serve little -- if any -- useful informational purpose, would serve to trivialize the legal processes at work and would further distract from the central fact that two lives have been lost and a third lies in the balance of justice."

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