Action in schools might be too late

The Education Beat

Reconstitution: The Board of Education is ready to turn over some schools to third-party operators, but it could take years for poor performers to reach "average" status.

January 26, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE STATE BOARD of Education is poised, finally, to "reconstitute" -- that is, turn over to an outside contractor -- one or more schools on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program list of perpetual failures.

Sadly, the board won't have to look far beyond its headquarters in downtown Baltimore. Of the 97 schools judged "reconstitution- eligible" since MSPAP became official in 1993, 83 are in the city, and some have been on the list for years. Indeed, no school has improved sufficiently to be taken off the dishonor roll.

Which raises a host of questions. Is the state action too little, too late? Since the only sword hanging over the poorly performing schools is reconstitution, is the state in the position of the little boy who cried wolf? And who is to say the third-party operators can improve achievement?

An independent group, Advocates for Children and Youth (ACY), has been keeping a close eye on the reconstitution process, and last week it issued a report asking these and other hard questions.

So slow has been improvement at most failing schools, the ACY report says, that only 14.7 percent of them are likely to reach the state average within five years. For 43.7 percent of the schools, reaching the average will take more than a century, it said. Diggs Johnson Middle School in Baltimore will need 1,140 years to reach the average. That's putting it in stark relief.

When is slow too slow? ACY asks that question, too, and it's a reasonable one. The advocacy organization looks at schools that have made double-digit improvement -- Pimlico, Liberty, Cherry Hill, Overlook (in Prince George's County) and Park Heights elementaries -- and concludes that "more rapid change is possible."

It recommends that the state reconstitute all schools that will not reach the state average within 10 years, unless there are signs of remarkable recent progress. And it suggests the state consider turning the failed schools into charter schools financed publicly but operated independently. Nearly 1,700 such schools are in operation across the nation.

"While the early evidence on charter schools is inconclusive," the ACY report says, "they provide the most promising evidence that third-party contracts can work."

The ACY analysis of 1998-1999 MSPAP results isn't the first report from the organization. This is its fourth report on the reconstitution process. The state has acted on some of the recommendations. But much more needs to be done, and there have been major goofs.

The state, for example, allowed Baltimore to reduce class size in the fourth and fifth grades, when research shows that shrinking classes in earlier grades is more effective. And many of the school improvement plans approved by the state for the failing schools in the city aren't based on sound research.

In the end, the ACY questions the Department of Education's "capacity to rigorously assess the quality of the plans, accurately monitor implementation and provide technical assistance to the schools."

Putting a lid on tuition

Kudos to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. It has asked the boards that oversee Maryland's colleges and universities "to eliminate, or severely limit, increases in tuition and mandatory fees in coming fiscal years."

Maryland colleges' tuition and mandatory fees have increased 123 percent in 10 years, and average tuition and fees in community colleges are up 138 percent. During the same time, the Consumer Price Index increased 40 percent.

"At a time when we need more and more college-educated workers, the steady increase in tuition and fees is making it difficult for some people to attend college," said Patricia S. Florestano, secretary of higher education.

Catholic educators to meet

Baltimore will play host to one of its largest conventions this spring, when the National Catholic Educational Association meets at the Convention Center.

More than 10,000 delegates will convene in Baltimore April 25-28. Meeting concurrently will be the National Association of Parish Coordinators and Directors of Religious Education.

Drinking discouraged

The University of Denver is taking a "social norms" approach to discouraging campus drinking. Fliers posted on campus bulletin boards announce that "59 percent of DU undergraduate females have fewer than five drinks when they party."

Such an approach is said to reduce peer pressure to drink to excess.

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