A call for 'rethinking' in class Teachers: Reformers and veterans agree that getting better instructors is vital to Baltimore's schools.

March 10, 1997|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

A chart describing the backgrounds of Maryland educators, accompanying an article yesterday, omitted the word "advanced" in the academic degree category, giving the impression that the figures represented the percentage of educators with undergraduate degrees instead of advanced degrees.

The Sun regrets the error.

As Maryland legislators consider a deal that would funnel millions of dollars in new aid to Baltimore schools, those inside and outside the city school system agree that a key focus of any reform should be on teaching.

"The people who have the most significant effect on academic performance are the students' teachers. Teachers are the key," said Christopher S. Lambert, education director of Advocates for Children and Youth, a local advocacy group.


Academics, administrators and teachers themselves cite several barriers to better teaching that cry out for attention in city schools, ranging from the way teachers are selected to the way they are assigned.

Among them:

* Hundreds of teachers leave the system every year, many because of poor pay and working conditions.

* Nearly 11 percent of teachers and other school employees such as librarians lack adequate training and have only temporary, one-year state licenses.

* The least experienced teachers are placed in the most difficult schools and classrooms.

* Many teacher aides have to take remedial classes to bring their own skills to a fifth-grade level.

Clarissa Evans, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, acknowledges serious shortcomings in the way the schools' 6,500-person teaching staff is managed.

"The reality is we don't have enough people and they don't have enough time to do all the development and training we need," she said. "Maybe we need to do some rethinking."

A recent report by the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future said most efforts at school reform have overlooked the importance of teaching.

"Student learning in this country will improve only when we focus our efforts on improving teaching," the commission said in its report, "What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future."

Baltimore's problems with teaching begin with an annual exodus.

Last year, 408 teachers left the city's school system for reasons other than retirement, according to the personnel department. More than one-fourth told the city that they were leaving for a teaching job elsewhere.

"We've been a training ground," said Kenneth M. Kuyawa, the schools' director of personnel.

The cumulative effect can be seen in statewide figures on teachers' experience.

Among Maryland's major jurisdictions, Baltimore ranks in the middle of the pack in the percentage of teachers with under five years' experience.

But the city is dead last in the percentage of teachers with 6 to 20 years' experience -- seasoned enough to have seen most problems, but young enough to be unjaded. And it is top-heavy with teachers with 21 or more years, many of whom are described by principals privately and disparagingly as on "indoor annual leave."

Part of the difficulty in keeping teachers is money. The starting salary for teachers in Baltimore lags that in surrounding jurisdictions, and the gap widens with experience. The pending school deal that would send $254 million to the city over five years mandates that some of the funds be used to raise teacher salaries.

But many say large classes, discipline problems and large numbers of needy students are as important as salary in driving teachers away.

"They get disillusioned with some of the conditions in the city," said Marcia Brown, head of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

One who got disillusioned quickly was Richard Arbogast.

A native of Severna Park who had a college sociology degree and Peace Corps experience, but no teaching certificate, Arbogast wanted to teach in Baltimore "to do something for the city."

He began teaching at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary School in East Baltimore in September 1995 under a program to put former Peace Corps workers in jobs as teachers while they earned masters' degrees in teaching.

He left only one semester later, done in by the chaos in the classroom and what he describes as ham-handed efforts to help him.

"A lot of the kids were really good kids," he said. "But they were running around the class a lot, up out of their seats at the drop of a hat.

"The administrators didn't understand how to deal with someone having trouble in the classroom. Their solution was to come in, restore order and then leave. You can't do that to a new teacher."

Arbogast, who acknowledges he might have been at fault for "not really understanding city kids," now teaches language and work skills to immigrants at Baltimore Community College while pursuing a graduate degree in English as a second language.

With so many teachers leaving each year, Baltimore is constantly scrambling to hire new ones.

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