A chance to turn schools around Reform: To get the most out of promised extra aid, Baltimore needs to try policies that have been shown to work.

December 15, 1996|By JOHN E. SLAVIN

Robert E. Slavin of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk was misidentified in the byline and credit line of an article that appeared in Perspective on Sunday.

The Sun regrets the error.

BALTIMORE HAS a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make its ailing, beleaguered school system a model of urban education. Decisions to be made in the next few months will determine the course of reform in the Baltimore City public schools for the next decade or longer.

What has created this possibility is the proposed settlement of a set of lawsuits involving the city, the state, the American Civil Liberties Union and special education advocates.


Assuming that the proposed settlement clears the courts and the legislature approves it, the city schools would get an extra $254 million in state aid over the next five years. The figure includes $230 million in school operating aid, beginning with $30 million next year, and $50 million in each of the next four years. Also, the city would get about $24 million in additional school renovation money.

A new school board, jointly selected by the city and state, would appoint a new leadership team for the city schools.

How optimistic can we be that new funds and new leaders will turn the Baltimore schools around?

Certainly, competent leaders with enhanced resources can solve some of the management problems that afflict the school system. They can probably improve fiscal management, install a working computer system, get an accurate count of special education students, and reduce boiler explosions.

Yet more efficient management, while necessary, is not sufficient to make a meaningful difference in the academic performance of Baltimore's children. It would be entirely possible to create a system that runs like a well-oiled machine but does nothing to move students toward state and national performance standards.

Student achievement cannot change unless the instruction is substantially better. This is not to criticize Baltimore teachers, who, by and large, do an extraordinary job given their difficult working conditions. However, teachers everywhere, and especially those in large urban districts, need the resources, the professional development, and the support to use instructional methods and materials known to make a significant difference in student achievement.

Research in education over the past 20 years has identified an array of programs, practices and policies that can have a substantial impact on the performance of children. If Baltimore City's new funds are targeted on bringing these programs and practices into wide spread use throughout the system, with a clear and consistent focus on the quality of implementation and close linkages with state performance standards (such as those assessed by the Maryland School Peformance Assessment Program, or MSPAP), $50 million per year can go a long way in helping all children achieve their full potential.

Some of the investments most likely to pay off in enhanced achievement are schoolwide reform models that change just about everything in a school, from curriculum and instruction to school organization and assessment.

It so happens that Baltimore is particularly well placed for this type of reform. Maryland was selected as one of 10 national sites to be involved with New American Schools, a private foundation that has funded the development of seven whole-school reform designs. The designs are very different from each other, but all share a commitment to high standards.

Our own Roots and Wings design is one example. Roots and Wings restructures elementary schools to build a firm basis in basic skills, such as reading, writing, and math ("roots"), and to engage students in creative simulations and investigations ("wings"). First piloted in St. Mary's County, Roots and Wings has strong evidence of effectiveness on MSPAP, and is used in 20 Baltimore County schools, as well as in St. Mary's.

Roots and Wings incorporates an earlier program, Success for All, that began in Baltimore and is now used in 450 schools in 31 states, but only in three Baltimore City schools.

Other New American School designs include Expeditionary Learning, which engages students in learning expeditions based Outward Bound; and ATLAS, which emphasizes projects, demonstrations of competence, parent involvement, and mental health.

ATLAS is used in several Prince George's County schools, and Expeditionary Learning is being piloted in two Baltimore County schools. ATLAS incorporates James Comer's nationally known School Development Program, which is used in 78 schools in Prince George's County and in many large urban districts.

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