Another generation of students is cursed

November 13, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Some curse seems to have been cast over the public schools of the city of Baltimore. The latest test scores say three-quarters of city students are reading below grade level. They say the more years children remain in city elementary schools, the further they fall behind kids in other systems. They say that, at nearly every grade level, special education students - kids with learning disabilities, with psychological problems - score no worse than kids in regular classrooms.

The curse of the schools spreads like a stain. Instead of salvation, we brace ourselves for the newest round of excuses from the academic bureaucrats and the sleepers at City Hall. What'll it be this time? Not enough money? Outdated textbooks or crowded classrooms? Insufficient computers, or underpaid teachers, or kids from troubled homes?

They're all reasonable excuses, but it's an unreasonable world, and while we await the latest poor-mouthing from the deep thinkers on North Avenue, we've kissed off another generation of kids who aren't learning much in classrooms but are bright enough to sense when the deck's been stacked against them, and thus take matters into their own hands: dropping out, running the streets, gnawing at the bones of shaky neighborhoods and sending another generation of the frightened and the frustrated deeper into the suburbs.

These California Diagnostic reading and math tests, given two months ago, are being used to chart the progress of the much-publicized school reform efforts lately under way. What they show is the distance that must be covered for the city's kids to catch up with the rest of the country, and the sheer, drop-off-the-side-of-a-cliff plunge of a system that has come to symbolize much of the city's decay.

City that reads? The study says city kids enter the system with abilities roughly comparable to children across America. But, by fourth grade, they're more than a year behind; by fifth grade, nearly a year and a half.

The good news? The math scores aren't quite as bad as the reading scores.

All of this points out precisely why state school Superintendent Nancy Grasmick spent so much time in Annapolis last year, begging for money, trying to convince reluctant suburban legislators that, with enough dollars and enough reorganization, there might be daylight ahead.

It's why the deal had to entail taking power over the schools from the city and giving it to the state. The game's up. While a couple of generations of kids got short-changed, their elders let the business of learning fall apart until it's now reached this abysmal condition.

The problem is: No one believes money's enough, not if it's spent in the usual ways. There's huge money spent each year on the North Avenue bureaucracy, comprising people who pray each morning that no one asks them what they do for a living.

There are teachers whose students underperform year after year. The teachers remain. There are principals with entire schools of underperforming kids. The principals remain or get shifted to some other school in the system. There's no accountability. It's a system of underperforming educators producing underperforming students, and nobody on a payroll pays a price for the continuing troubles.

Does that mean everybody's guilty? No, of course not. There are lots of wonderful, dedicated people in the system doing marvelous work - and whose reputation is tarnished because the teacher across the hall, or the principal downstairs, has been coasting for years and hoping to reach retirement before anybody figures out the dodge, and the union types have clung to power so jealously that they, too, have defended even the most egregious behavior.

But the real puzzle, as the schools continue their 30-year slide: Why aren't parents storming the barricades? Why haven't there been 30 years of parents (and other taxpayers) so infuriated by such a colossal waste of children (and money) that they didn't long ago demand sweeping changes?

There's the problem that money doesn't begin to touch. For every dedicated teacher, there are parents who have simply not paid attention. They don't believe in the benefits of education. Or they don't bother asking the simple question, "Have you done your homework?" Or they're simply not around.

Or else they've fallen for a series of bluffs from the bureaucrats: The kids will be fine, if we treat them with dignity. The kids will be fine, if we look to their cultural needs. The kids will be fine, if I

Enough, already. There's a 30-year curse on the schools, which is the curse of adults who merely pretend to be helping children while mainly looking out for themselves. It's the bureaucrats sleepwalking through their days, and it's teachers who don't know their material or don't know how to control a classroom, and it's burned-out principals, and it's union officials more concerned with protecting their turf than protecting children.

Enough.

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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