Demographics are the downfall Grades: 'Quality Counts' findings put performance data in the context of census statistics and show how Baltimore schools pull down statewide averages.

The Education Beat

January 25, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Once, before suburbs, Baltimore schools were the envy of Maryland. City schools were so distinguished that the system was autonomous, legally separate from the other 23 mediocrities.

Demographics changed that. Now city schools are like a boulder tied to the public school rowboat. They pull down the average for everyone.

State education officials found that out again this month, when Maryland got its second annual report card from the most thorough assessment of American education yet attempted. Maryland's grades weren't anything to brag about.

How do you explain an F (last year's grade was D+) in "school climate?" And why did Maryland get a C- in "teaching quality"?

Maryland is, after all, a state that prides itself on school reform. The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) has become a national model, and the state got an A- on the report card in a category called "standards and assessments." But that was the only above-average grade.

Much of the mediocre showing can be explained (though not excused) in two words: Baltimore City. The city pulls down all statewide performance averages. Even Prince George's County, the other district in Maryland with a sizable urban population, shines in comparison.

This year's "Quality Counts" report, compiled by the publication Education Week with help from the Pew Charitable Trusts, grades the states from the perspective of the urban crisis, putting school performance data in the context of census data.

Just a few of the low lights:

Baltimore has 15 percent of the state's children but 87 percent of the state's children in extreme poverty.

Maryland has one of the widest gaps between spending on urban and "nonurban" schools. This explains the C's given the state in the spending category and the drop from A- last year to C this year in the equity of school spending.

Maryland has the widest gap in the nation between urban and nonurban student performance in eighth-grade math and the fifth-widest gap in fourth-grade reading. Much of this difference can be attributed to Baltimore, where 45 percent of the state's poor children live.

Just under a third of urban high school teachers in Maryland lack HTC even a college minor in the subjects they teach, compared with 16 percent in nonurban schools.

States with urban centers get poor grades in "school climate," and the lack of PTAs in many city schools helps pull Maryland down in this category.

These kinds of dismal statistics are sprinkled throughout "Quality Counts," which seems biased in its grading against states with huge urban centers, such as Maryland and Michigan.

Last summer, when Sun reporters began planning the reporting that culminated in the "Reading By 9" series in November, we referred to these statistics as the "to be sure" factors.

To be sure, there's urban poverty that makes city children harder teach. To be sure, it's difficult to teach reading, or anything else, with 35 children in a classroom.

Difficult, but not impossible, we concluded. In fact, we found that proven methods of reading instruction aren't being used where they are needed most.

"Quality Counts" did detect one bright note in the dirge. That is the "novel partnership" between city and state that is overhauling the governance of city schools and promising (if agreements are kept) to bring $254 million in additional state aid over five years. That effort is well under way.

It takes time to improve education on a large scale, but a few years from now, that promising development might bring Maryland an "I" for Improvement.

White House honors Maryland teachers

A lot of attention was on the White House Thursday, but not because it announced this year's winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Maryland winners are Nancy Cornelius, a math teacher at Pointers Run Elementary in Clarksville; Dorothy Reitz, a math teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Germantown; Karen Shrake, a science teacher at Burtonsville Elementary in Burtonsville; and John Perry, a science teacher at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City.

Among other things, each winner gets $7,500 from the National Science Foundation, to be spent at the teacher's discretion to advance math and science education.

EAI was then; TesseracT is now

The EAI watch will have to become the TesseracT watch. The company that tried to make a profit operating nine Baltimore schools in the mid-'90s has changed its name to the TesseracT Group to "reflect the company's commitment to expanded educational services and the Tesseract philosophy."

One reason for the change, we suspect, is the association of "EAI" with the company's failed for-profit experiments in Baltimore and Hartford, Conn.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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