Tough school fixes urged Aggressive approach needed for failing schools, report says

'Critical for the state'

Group wants incentives for teachers, more power for principals

December 02, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

A Maryland child-advocacy group is recommending state officials take a more aggressive approach to fixing the state's most troubled schools, including intervening when the efforts of local school boards fail.

A report released today by Advocates for Children and Youth says that at many of the schools identified two or three years ago as failing, test scores have not risen significantly, particularly in Baltimore.

Since 1994, the state has put 89 schools in Maryland, including 79 in Baltimore, on a list of failing schools based on their performance on statewide tests that measure reading and math skills.

The schools were told they were in danger of state takeover if they didn't show major improvements in five years.

The report says that the state should intervene sooner, perhaps finding a "third party" to operate some of the worst schools or to scrutinize management at each school more closely.

"For us, the most important issue is that it is critical for the state to exercise the authority to intervene in schools where children are not learning," said Matthew Joseph, public policy director of the nonprofit, statewide advocacy group.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including: giving principals in poorly performing schools the right to hire and fire all staff, exempting these schools from collective-bargaining rules, and offering signing bonuses and incentives to principals and teachers assigned to the schools.

The report emphasizes that the state may need to increase funding to some of the schools and to provide it more quickly so that principals can plan a year ahead.

Calverton Middle School on Whitmore Avenue in West Baltimore, with a record of five years of dismal test scores, is an example of the kinds of failures the report highlights.

"Calverton is a school that people have been trying to reform for as long as I can remember," Joseph said.

The school was put on the state's list of poorly performing schools in winter 1995 when only 2.6 percent of its eighth-graders passed the state reading tests.

Despite that alert, 60 percent of the staff at Calverton left the next year and were replaced by teachers new to city schools, Joseph said.

The school system's plan to reform Calverton did not attack the root of the school's problems -- its high teacher turnover and poor instruction, the report said.

While test scores at Calverton rose the next year, only 4.2 percent of eighth-graders passed, a rate far below the city average and nowhere near the state's 40 percent passing rate for most eighth-graders.

Calverton officials could not be reached for comment.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick applauded many of the report's recommendations.

Grasmick said she believes the state could provide more assistance for individual schools in Baltimore than it is providing now.

But, the superintendent said, she does not want the state to take over Calverton.

"I am reluctant to do that this year," she said. "I have discussed it with committees in the General Assembly and [city schools superintendent] Dr. [Robert] Booker," she said.

Grasmick said the plan to reform city schools, which took effect this year, has not had time to show results. "I feel it is only fair to the city to wait a year," she said.

Baltimore school board president Tyson Tildon agreed. "We need to give the master plan a chance to work," Tildon said.

Grasmick said the state had been charting a new course in state education policy when it went about trying to make the schools more accountable in the early 1990s.

"I think we were creating a model where there was none in the state and the nation," she said. "I think we have learned as we have come through the process."

The state standard on performance tests is 70 percent. On average in the failing schools, 10.9 percent of third-graders passed the tests; 11 percent of fifth-graders passed, and 13.7 percent of eighth-graders passed.

State education officials never envisioned that so many schools, half of those in the city, would be placed on the list of poor performers, Grasmick said.

Instead, it was believed that when one or several schools were spotlighted, a local school system could concentrate talents and efforts to improve them.

In Anne Arundel and Somerset counties, that has occurred, Grasmick said.

In Baltimore, she said, the school system does not have as large a talent pool to draw on for new teachers and principals.

Each year, the system has had trouble attracting the thousands of teachers it needs to replace those who retire or take jobs in other school districts.

Pub Date: 12/02/98

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