Futility in the Schools

June 11, 1995

Half a century ago, an assessment of Baltimore City schools was an exercise in self-congratulation. In 1941, a top administrator described them this way: "Placidity enshrouds the Baltimore schools system like a benediction today. . . with scarcely a ripple of discontent or adverse criticism."

Like the city it serves, the school system has seen its fortunes fall precipitously. If there is a danger of complacency toward city schools in 1995, it does not stem from an absence of discontent but from a feeling of futility in the face of daunting problems -- whether the disintegration of stable families or the flight of the middle class.

Yet the failure of so many city children to acquire the skills to succeed may not emerge as a pivotal issue in the coming election. Yes, schools are critical to the life of any city, and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has not delivered on his promise to bring dramatic improvements. But in the absence of highly visible scandals or a compelling vision and persuasive blueprint for change from the mayor's challenger, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, concerns about the direction of the city's schools may take a back seat to other issues. That's too bad, because the problems and challenges facing Baltimore's schools deserve a good civic airing.

Since taking office in 1991, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey has sounded a welcome note of confidence in the ability of children to learn, embraced the need for change and shown a willingness to take risks. Yet the results have been spotty. His most controversial initiative -- hiring Educational Alternatives Inc., a private, for-profit company to manage nine city schools -- has not produced the improvements in student performance the company promised.

Meanwhile, a simpler project -- the Barclay School's partnership with the private Calvert School -- has demonstrated that a school with a demanding, consistent curriculum and teachers with adequate training and support can successfully teach children despite all the social problems they may bring to the classroom. Yet this basic lesson -- that a thorough, well-defined curriculum is at the core of any school's success -- goes unheeded. So does the need for strong overall management in everything from basic procurement to tough personnel decisions to ensure that children's needs do not take second place to adult comfort.

The challenges facing the school system are daunting; one seasoned observer likened it to the task of the proverbial Dutch boy who tried to keep back the sea by putting his finger in a hole in a dike. But the Barclay School and other bright spots prove that success is possible, even within the fiscal constraints that are part of life in 1995.

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