IF THE news from Baltimore City Public Schools has seemed unrelentingly bad in recent years, there is some comfort in knowing that this urban system is not alone in its troubles.
In a comprehensive look at urban education, Education Week released a survey last week comparing urban school districts with nonurban schools.
The bottom line: ''Urban students perform far worse, on average, than children who live outside central cities on virtually every measure of academic performance,'' the report says.
The longer children remain in these schools, the wider the gap becomes. In schools where a majority of students are poor, two-thirds or more of students fail to reach even the ''basic'' level of achievement on national tests.
In Baltimore, thanks to an aid-for-accountability plan hammered out last year in the legislature and signed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, there is a new sense of possibility.
There is even hope that a system that has driven many of its supporters to despair may now find a way to translate the brave talk about reform into measurable improvements in the only place that matters -- the classroom.
The report is useful, because it shows that urban schools can beat the odds. It highlights ideas that have worked in various cities, as well as the values and themes that seem to help schools become more effective. Some of these ideas are especially relevant in Baltimore, as the board charts a new direction for city schools.
dTC For one, high standards make a difference. By raising the bar and taking standards seriously, schools do a better job of helping students reach them.
El Paso, Texas, is the fifth poorest metropolitan region in the United States, but a majority of its students pass state achievement tests. Officials credit clear standards for what students should learn, new curricula and teaching methods and a single-minded focus on results. Poor children can succeed.
Other cities have discovered the importance of strong leadership -- and not the top-down, authoritative style. Good leadership throughout the system has to be groomed and developed; it can't be imposed from the top.
Around the country, cities are learning that the process of improving leadership means giving schools more freedom over budgets, staffing and curricula in exchange for accountability, and giving teachers stronger roles in improving instruction.
In other words, schools can have more leeway in determining how their students will learn best -- but they better be prepared to show that students are actually learning.
None of this can happen unless schools support their teachers. Over the next decade, U.S. schools will need some 2 million new teachers. With the demands on teachers that are common to urban systems, Baltimore City will be competing with school districts that can offer more attractive salaries and working conditions.
Clearly, the city will need to focus on hiring the best new teachers it can get. But school leaders also need to find ways to retain, support and groom the teachers they already have.
As in most organizations, the city system has some outstanding performers, as well as many who are competent and some who aren't. Good leadership means finding ways to ensure that outstanding performers stay, and that competent teachers are given support, training and opportunities to become better and better.
Good leadership also means finding ways to terminate those people who are not competent and who, with appropriate help, show no improvement.
The problems of urban education didn't develop overnight, and they won't be fixed in a year or two. But in trying to address these problems, Baltimore and other urban districts are undertaking some of the nation's boldest experiments in school reform.
Three decades ago, this country was feverishly working to put a man on the moon. It succeeded. Now it's time to make sure that children in all our schools learn to read, write and compute.
That goal may require as much effort as the moon mission -- and much of it will be expended in cities like Baltimore. But any nation that can reach the moon can surely figure out how to teach all its children, and teach them well.
Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.
Pub Date: 1/11/98