How to close the achievement gap

Towson: Improving African-American academic performance in county schools must be a priority.

February 02, 2000

IT'S ONE of the most pressing crises in Baltimore County's public schools: African-American students achieve at levels far below those of their white counterparts, and the gap is unlikely to narrow soon.

The results from the last round of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests starkly demonstrate the width of this chasm.

In reading, writing and mathematics, the percentage of black third-grade students doing satisfactory work is about half that of white students. In science and social studies, the distance between the two is even greater -- half of white students are performing to the standard compared with only one-fifth of black students.

These are abysmal numbers, and they indicate an urgent need for improvement. But walk the halls of Greenwood, the old brick mansion that serves as county school headquarters, and you can feel the lack of urgency.

True, the school board has elevated the system's director of minority achievement and multicultural education to the level of assistant superintendent. And James H. Wilson, the former Woodlawn High School principal tapped to fill the position, is busy surveying principals, analyzing reading programs and developing strategies to ultimately narrow the achievement gap between white and black students.

But more must be done immediately.

Too many children are falling behind right now because of impediments that could be corrected with the necessary attention and resources.

Take the situation at Shady Spring Elementary in Rosedale. The school is 51 percent black and its reading scores are so low that they're labeled "immoral" in the school's improvement plan.

Principal Edward Cozzolino -- an administrator with a strong record of achievement -- has assembled a competent staff and has made improving the reading and writing skills of African-American students a major focus of the school's instructional program.

But the system's languid bureaucracy makes classroom improvements an uphill battle.

Shady Spring used to have a teacher mentor, an older instructor to shepherd the development of younger teachers. But the system stripped the position from the school last fall, even though roughly half of the staff has less than 10 years of experience.

The school's library is another under-supported resource. There are only about 400 books in it, and no classroom libraries. Mr. Cozzolino would like students to take home a book each night to read or have their parents read to them, but there aren't enough to go around.

Shady Spring is also crowded, and an addition was supposed to be ready for occupancy this spring. It won't be, thanks to delays caused by three different construction managers.

But in the meantime, the school's Internet cable connection -- which was severed by the firm that poured the addition's footing -- is useless.

As a result, the phone line Internet connection the children use is painfully slow and ineffective for instruction. That ruins Mr. Cozzolino's plan to make the Internet a regular part of the school's reading and writing programs.

These kinds of impediments to learning are inexcusable in any school. They are more intolerable in a school where children are performing so poorly.

They are but one example: Throughout Baltimore County, you can find low-achieving minority students who are not receiving the urgent attention they deserve.

Demographics changing

The problem won't go away soon, either.

Outward migration from Baltimore into the county continues. In years past, most of these migrants were white middle-class families, but now they are increasingly African-American families.

Judging from demographic data and test results, these students are poorer and less prepared for school than their white counterparts or the many thousands of middle-class African American students who already attend county schools.

These students' backgrounds can't be used as excuses for their substandard levels of achievement.

They should be seen as challenges that the education system must overcome. Stepping up to that challenge is the key.

If county schools continue to turn out poorly educated minority students, the impact will be felt throughout Maryland.

"The longstanding and pervasive education disparity is the key economic development issue for this state," said Dunbar Brooks, a former Baltimore County School Board president.

"If we consistently undereducate or miseducate approximately 40 percent of our labor force, we will doom this state to economic oblivion in the not too distant future."

Longstanding problem

School officials have known about this gap in academic performance for years. In the early 1990s, the State Department of Education developed the Maryland State Education Multicultural Council, which requires each of the state's 24 jurisdictions to develop five-year plans for improving minority achievement.

Baltimore County's black students have shown some improvement since the state adopted these mandates, but over the last five years the upward pace has been much too slow.

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