Failing schools are old news Reading: In the 1970s, Sun columnist Edgar L. Jones was pointing out that students in the Baltimore system were not performing up to standard. The prescription for success was the same then as now.

The Education Beat

December 14, 1997|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF Sun research librarian Dee Lyon contributed to this column.

LOOK, JANE, look. See the test scores fall further behind. See the failures of urban education, Baltimore style."

Oh, how those words, published in The Evening Sun 25 years ago this month, echo through the years!

They came from the typewriter -- no computers in those days -- of Edgar L. Jones, who worked in anonymity as an editorial writer for The Sun. But for more than a decade before his retirement in 1980, Jones wrote a signed column for the afternoon paper.

Many of Jones' pieces, written with clarity and insight, were about Baltimore schools. Now 82 and living in West Baltimore just a stone's throw from Windsor Hills Elementary, Jones provided his readers a long-term view of a system under duress.

In fact, the system had been under duress since midcentury, when the middle class began chasing suburban dreams.

But lest you think that Baltimore started going to hell when that migration began, Jones pointed out in 1968 that even in 1952, "when the school population was substantially different," more than half of the city's fifth-graders were at least a year behind in reading and even the top 25 percent "had a reading average somewhat below grade level."

In the city, it was hard to get test results until the late 1960s. School officials considered the results of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills private. Publishing them would only encourage competition among schools.

A little competition wouldn't hurt, Jones argued in print, and when city school headquarters (then on 25th Street) did release the scores, Jones went to work.

Were all the high-performing schools white? No.

Jones visited the black schools with high scores, and he found the same school-success factors cited by state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick in releasing the 1997 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program scores Thursday: strong leadership, motivated teachers, involved parents and a plan of educational attack to which everyone subscribes.

In those days, schools across Maryland also tested "nonverbal ability," or what we often refer to as IQ. A reporter -- or anyone, for that matter -- could set students' IQ scores beside their reading scores and come to some conclusions about the relationship between potential and performance.

Twenty years ago, of the 119 schools in Baltimore at that time, only 31 had Iowa-test reading averages that were higher than would be expected from their third-grade IQ scores. Jones called 25th Street to find out why, and he got the runaround.

With his native New England bluntness, Jones wrote that if he were an administrator, he would "camp out on the doorstep" of Highlandtown Elementary, the school with the widest gap between IQ and reading scores, "until I had an explanation. Maybe there's a good reason."

Had there been a state lottery in Maryland in the 1960s, Jones might have used it as a metaphor for the kind and quality of reading instruction available to city students, just as The Sun did in its recent "Reading By 9" series.

In city schools then, Jones observed, there was little direct control over teachers' behavior in the classroom, but rather "a form of genteel professional persuasion." The "remarkable decentralization of authority" rested on the premise that the city had a corps of equally capable principals and teachers. Unfortunately, Jones said, this wasn't the case.

The Iowa tests are long gone, replaced by the California tests and then the more sophisticated but controversial Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests. In releasing the MSPAP scores last week, Grasmick took pains to praise the urban schools that are "outliers" -- that is, beating the odds by posting test scores higher than would be expected, given their students' socioeconomic backgrounds.

In the vast majority of cases, reading performance in MSPAP -- and on the Iowa tests 30 years ago -- is directly related to family income. But thank goodness for the outliers; they give us hope. From 1971, Jones gets the last word:

"When the school staff 'digs in,' the result shows up on the test scores; and when they don't, it also shows up."

Sondheim poll finds he shouldn't retire

There was Walter Sondheim all over the front page of the Wall Street Journal Tuesday. Sondheim, the man who laid the foundation for MSPAP and who serves on the State Board of Education (among several other bodies), has been worrying about whether age 89 is time to retire.

According to the article by Christina Duff, Sondheim wrote to 10 friends, all in their 60s or younger. Even if you do it anonymously, he asked, please tell me "if the time has come to hang up the spikes."

Apparently none of the recipients, who included several Baltimore civic leaders, answered affirmatively. Grasmick, who was not quoted in the Journal story, was one of the "privileged 10," she said. "I think you'll tell me that long before I'll tell you that," she told Sondheim Thursday.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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