What we are doing right

June 17, 1996|By WALTER G. AMPREY

GOOD THINGS are happening in the Baltimore City Public Schools, although we don't hear much about them in the news media. Here are some examples:

Test scores are on the rise, albeit modestly. At a press conference last December, state schools superintendent Nancy Grasmick said, ''Baltimore city should be commended for the progress they've made.''

Systemic school reform is well under way. The Maryland State Board of Education recently praised our far-reaching efforts that span curriculum, teacher training, innovative instructional models and accountability for results. We have cooperated fully with state officials in developing ''reconstitution'' plans for low-performing schools.

There is more school-based decision making in city schools than anywhere in the state and perhaps in the country. This Enterprise initiative was the General Assembly's top priority for management improvement within Baltimore City Public Schools.

Growing cooperation

In special education, where the school system has been involved in court litigation for more than 12 years, significant progress has occurred under the leadership of a special administrator, Sister Kathleen Feeley. This includes implementation of a management information system. Sister Kathleen has applauded the growing cooperation she has received throughout the city system.

A new teacher-evaluation plan, which will be on the cutting edge of national reform, is being developed.

Staff in central headquarters has been substantially reduced. Central administration has taken almost the full brunt of major budget cuts.

Although the partnership with Education Alternatives Inc. ended earlier than we hoped, the Baltimore school system is nationally recognized for its openness and willingness to try bold innovations. The Sylvan learning labs and Calvert curriculum, as well as Enterprise schools, are examples.

Other management improvements have occurred, such as a dramatic rise in the attainment of Medicaid funding.

We've made mistakes. Sometimes, we have not reacted quickly enough. Sometimes, we've overreacted. And we have many problems that don't disappear fast.

But we are not alone. Across the nation, urban school systems are under a constant barrage of criticism and upheaval. The average tenure of a big-city superintendent is two to three years. Highly publicized state takeovers in New Jersey have produced no demonstrable gains. In Cleveland, where a federal judge ordered state takeover, Education Week recently reported, ''Nearly a year after a state takeover, the Cleveland public schools are still wrestling with a massive debt and poor student performance. . . . [The district] continues to suffer setback after setback.''

In Chicago the widely touted state-city restructuring has quickly encountered resistance and serious problems. Philadelphia superintendent David Hornbeck was recently cited for contempt of court by a local judge, and a newspaper story was headlined ''Hornbeck under siege.''

It's not clear that anyone anywhere has the magic bullet for turning around the academic performance of low-income, inner-city children. But in Baltimore we have an unparalleled chance to show the way for the country because, with strong support from the mayor, school board, parents and staff, we have laid the foundation for sustained improvement. We have a clear vision and plan for where we want to go -- toward a school-based Enterprise system that focuses on instruction.

We can and must do better with the resources we have. But we can improve far more if we receive the resources our children deserve, as we're seeking in pending lawsuits against the state.

The state is right to set high testing standards and to demand accountability. However, accountability is a two-way street. State output (school performance tests known as ''MSPAP'') standards must be aligned with state input (funding) standards that base additional state aid on research-based best instructional practice. The state has no such input standards.

The closest measure of what the city needs in increased state aid came in 1994 from the Governor's Commission on School Funding (also called the Hutchinson Commission). Its report called for approximately $140 million a year more for the city. The members of the commission included state superintendent Nancy Grasmick and legislative leaders. Maryland ranks about 35th nationally among the states in education spending relative to state wealth.

Baltimore City Public Schools have a long way to go. To get there on behalf of our children, we will continue to do everything in our power to achieve a collaborative working relationship with the state. The chances for success will increase if there is more balanced media coverage of what, under daunting conditions, we are doing right.

Walter G. Amprey is superintendent of public instruction for the Baltimore City Public Schools.

Pub Date: 6/17/96

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