What the city schools need most

June 22, 1996|By DANIEL BERGER

BALTIMORE CITY school children, on average, come from neighborhoods more discouraging and homes less supportive of school achievement than children from wealthier counties.

They go to physically shoddier schools, with bathrooms often nonfunctional, larger class size, meaning less attention per child from the teacher, who is less well paid than the wealthy-county counterpart -- on average.

There are fewer study materials, sometimes no books, and far fewer computers than in wealthier subdivisions -- on average.

One need not be a rocket scientist to suspect a correlation between these conditions and the lower average achievement of city school children. They need more, but get less.

Nonetheless, the present policy debate rests on the pretense of the absence of such correlation. This is phrased as ''not just throwing money at the problem.''

Many people who say this behave otherwise, if able, in their family decisions. Living in the subdivision that spends more per child, patronizing private schools, attending the most expensive college that will offer admission, is throwing money at the problem. It buys smaller class size, more teacher attention, more study materials and a peer group more conducive to achievement.

In a previous decade as this department's city-school watcher and 13 years as a parent of city public-school children, I concluded that class size in broadest defi- tween 10 or 20 more. That cannot be. It allows raising class size of 20 incrementally each year with no loss in achievement until reaching 40, although 40 is worse than 20. One assertion or the other must be wrong.

What the research may really show is that present techniques do not measure fine distinctions.

That, in my view, is how parents should judge any proposal for changing funding or governance. Not whether there would be more funds, but whether more would reach the child.

If it would reduce class size and provide more teaching materials, good. If it would spend more on other things, bad.

If it would cost more because state administrators must be added without city administrators being subtracted, the notion of spending more per child would be phony. More would be spent, but only on adult professionals interfacing with adult professionals.

But if it would streamline administration to put more of the resources into the classroom, wonderful. City administration leaves much to be desired on that score.

Improving skills of teachers is one thing. Preoccupation with scapegoats is something else, tion of a child.

New Jersey took over Newark's schools last year, hired a superintendent and poured resources into evaluating principals and food service. After one school year, achievement is not up and attendance is down. State takeover may allow a solution, but it is not one.

Political battle over schools is harmful, diverting attention from actual education, depressing teachers, pupils and parents. The best outcome is quick resolution. The worst is stalemate, prolonging the ill effects of ill will.

So, the best way to look at any proposal for Baltimore city schools is whether it would increase or decrease teacher attention and study materials per child. Nothing else really matters.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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