Tesseract's tough test After three years of EAI, time is running out on Baltimore's experiment

June 04, 1995|By Gary Gately and Mike Bowler | Gary Gately and Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writer James Bock contributed to this article.

To leaders of a city desperate for ways to reverse the decline of public schools, John T. Golle's promise proved irresistible: Let my company manage your schools, and it will dramatically improve student performance.

"Over the course of the next year, we will convert the existing schools into 'community sanctuaries' that will deliver world-class education," Mr. Golle, chief executive of Education Alternatives Inc., wrote in July 1992 to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "You can depend upon it."

So began a grand experiment, the nation's biggest test of whether private enterprise could save schools where government had failed. Now, three years after the for-profit Minnesota company brought the "Tesseract Way" to nine Baltimore schools, the project is in peril.

EAI brought computers and teddy bears, videocassette recorders and rocking chairs to the Tesseract schools. The company painted battered buildings and put up banners to boost self-esteem. It trained teachers in new methods and hired interns to help them.

But the reform seems more a face lift than a transformation; classrooms are cheerier, lessons more creative, but students have yet to demonstrate they're performing better.

At Edgewood Elementary, some fourth-graders struggle with addition and subtraction -- skills they should have mastered much earlier -- during a lesson on counting money.

At Dr. Rayner Browne, fourth-grade writing samples are riddled with grammatical, spelling or usage errors: "Then we saw the donkeys, and we wanted to pet them," reads one story displayed on a wall. "Then were chickens and got to go inside. And was the pigs, then the sweet chicks!" The teacher says eight of her students read at the first-grade level.

Standardized test scores for Tesseract students, already dismal, declined over the first two years -- more than comparable city schools and more than the district as a whole.

Mayor Schmoke, disappointed by the test scores and facing an election battle against one of Tesseract's most vocal critics, has threatened to end the program this summer unless an independent evaluation shows significant improvement. How much is unclear; EAI and the city have never set targets and time lines.

EAI may fall victim, in part, to its own bold promises. "Perhaps in our enthusiasm to win the contract," Mr. Golle says now, "we stated things that would allow people to believe that we were going to produce instant results.

"You don't sprinkle fairy dust around and all of a sudden have [achievement] grow. Perhaps if we had anything to do over again, we would have done a better job of lowering expectations."

Tesseract -- a term borrowed from the children's science-fiction book "A Wrinkle in Time" that conveys a faster, more efficient way to travel -- promised a new way to educate children, a way to revive struggling, inner-city schools. But the changes brought by EAI didn't go far enough, many teachers, company and school officials say.

Two Sun reporters spent three months visiting classes, reviewing documents and correspondence and interviewing EAI officials, students, parents and educators. Among their findings:

* Tesseract focuses primarily on how children learn; it puts less emphasis on what they learn. Tesseract uses as its foundation the city curriculum, criticized as weak on content and lacking specific requirements spelling out what students learn and when. The second-grade curriculum, running nearly 700 pages, includes endless lists of vague "competencies," but makes only passing reference to such basics as spelling and grammar.

* EAI inherited the principals and teachers who presided over the old, failed classrooms and lacks control over them. The city school system retains power over staffing, evaluating and setting standards. Principals, for example, rejected higher performance goals that EAI wanted.

* Tesseract, incubated in private schools in affluent suburbs in Minnesota and Arizona, provided remedies that underestimated the realities of urban schools. In computer labs at Harlem Park Middle School, students stole the "mouse" devices that operate the computers, and teachers at the school spend a good deal of their time simply trying to maintain order.

"Tesseract is a good program," says David Leimbach, a sixth-grade teacher at Harlem Park. "But I don't think the company realized that the problems here are bigger than all of us."

Successful school reform, some educators say, requires much more fundamental change than Tesseract has brought.

"If the principal is basically the same principal, if the group of teachers are the same ones that were there before, and the curriculum is the same, I don't see why on earth anybody would expect test scores to rise," says Samuel C. Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who evaluates school reform efforts.

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