Doing the two-step in Baltimore schools

Reform: Progress starts and stops, but efforts to improve must continue.

October 12, 2001

TWO STEPS forward, one step back. Or is it one step forward, two steps back? It's hard to tell these days in Baltimore City's public schools.

One week the system is announcing a major high school restructuring program, the next we're watching school officials weep over flagging test scores.

The measure of progress rises and falls like the stock market, and the fortunes that are won and lost are more valuable than money. They're children's futures.

It's a grim reminder of the obvious: There's still a ton of work to do before city schools can be declared sufficient, let alone superb. For all the grand accomplishments, there remain grave disappointments.

It's also an early reminder to the state legislature, which will be asked to reauthorize its landmark city school reform bill during the session that begins in January. Reform can't stop until the work is done.

Later this year, the legislature will receive an evaluation of the first five years of the city-state school reform partnership it created in 1997. It will likely look a lot like the opening paragraphs of this editorial.

Yes, city elementary schools now have books and a curriculum, smaller class sizes and more professional development for teachers. Younger children's test scores are riding a five-year surge, and more schools are trying innovative programs.

But middle schools are still inadequately equipped to deal with kids who need help with basic skills, and are inefficient at preparing children for high school.

Too many city high schools are warehouses for academic failure. It is unfathomable that nearly 40 percent of the city's secondary students can't pass a basic English skills test. It's nothing short of depressing to consider that nearly 80 percent can't pass basic math tests.

On the financial side - the other major component of reform - the system has also made great strides. Basic accounting principles are in place. Scares about possible deficit spending are less frequent, and when they arise, they're confronted head-on.

But the system also witnessed a significant scandal involving a mismanaged computer contract - something that couldn't have happened if all of the past's indiscretions had been abated.

All this means the legislature must not falter when the question of city school reform comes up this winter. Renew the partnership, which brings more money and state involvement to the system. Recommit to excellence, which has helped the city embrace the spirit of reform over the last five years. And, as always, send more money if possible.

If the goal is to create a system that takes two steps forward and never even looks back, the state can't afford to stop reform now.

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