Schools chief defends reforms after group's critical report Wait for this year's results, interim leader suggests

June 18, 1998|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

Baltimore City schools' top official called the findings of a Maryland children's advocacy group "hard-headed, wrong-minded and absolutely inaccurate" after the group asserted that the school system has spent millions of dollars on misguided and unsuccessful education reforms this year.

"We have some serious concerns with this group's conclusions and research," interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller said yesterday of the report released this week. "And we are not at all pleased by the attitude being taken in this report."

Advocates for Children and Youth, a statewide nonprofit group, said in a 19-page report that top school officials made ill-fated reform attempts, spent millions on programs that are failing, and have not kept the public well enough informed about its yearlong efforts.

The 10-year-old watchdog group spent seven months analyzing the Baltimore school system's latest reforms -- smaller classes and after-school programs.

Its findings were bleak, concluding that new after-school programs are "failing to attract the students most in need of academic help" and that class sizes have not been reduced enough to make any real improvement in learning.

Matthew Joseph, director of public policy for Advocates for Children and Youth, said national research on classroom size indicates children learn best in groups of fewer than 20 students. The report charges that in spite of this year's high-profile, $10 million push to reduce class sizes, more than two-thirds of students remain in classes with more than 20.

Joseph and others at Advocates for Children and Youth tout a Tennessee study in which students statewide learn better -- especially in math and science -- in classes of 15 to 20 pupils.

"Modest reductions will not improve student achievement," Joseph said. "Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened this year. Two-thirds of the classes remain too large to improve test scores."

But Schiller countered that test scores from Baltimore's last school year are not in, so "this is certainly a premature determination of failure."

The group further claims it could reduce classes to less than 20 students with the same amount of money with which the district has failed. The report suggests using the $10 million to reduce only math and reading classes -- those in which studies show most students need the extra help -- while leaving other classes alone.

But Schiller questioned the feasibility of the group's proposal for a district with about 108,000 students. "I don't know that it is possible to get classes to under 20 students in just one year in a school system this size," he said.

The schools chief further disputed the research in the group's report, saying it is not applicable to Baltimore's urban schools.

C. William Struever, who last month taught an eighth-grade English class in an effort to be more in-tune with the issues he deals with as a school board member, said 20 is not a magic number when it comes to class size.

"The class I was teaching was 21 kids," he said, but was manageable, showing that any efforts to reduce classes help students and teachers.

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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