A call to raise the standards

The Education Beat

Expectations: UMBC's president urges state education officials to push schools toward academic excellence.

March 31, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT'S A RARE event when a university president comes down from on high to advise the State Board of Education on the quality of the public schools' academic standards.

Rarer still when the board warmly embraces the president -- even as he pronounces the standards woefully inadequate.

But that's what happened yesterday in downtown Baltimore, when University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III crossed the divide for a chat with the state board.

U.S. schools, including those in Maryland, aren't expecting enough, Hrabowski said. Algebra standards are especially weak, he said, so much so that his university and many others are forced to give remedial help to students who should have been prepared in high school.

In international comparisons, said Hrabowski, American students usually come up short. Foreign students on his campus are better prepared, work harder and are "much more focused" than U.S. students.

Hrabowski, who had been invited by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to discuss "the importance of high standards and supplemental education," urged the board to hold fast against what a major federal report 21 years ago called a "rising tide of mediocrity."

"I realize it takes time," he said, "but you mustn't give up or lower the bar for some students."

That's a message Hrabowski has been spreading around the country for years. The translation is that African-Americans and Hispanics cannot be judged by lower standards simply because they don't perform as well as their white counterparts on standardized tests.

"Stop saying the tests are biased," he told the state board. "It's racist to say blacks and Hispanics can't do well on these tests."

That was music to board members' ears and might be the reason Hrabowski drew applause before and after his talk. With the No Child Left Behind Act nipping at its heels, the board has wrestled with the racial implications of standard-setting.

A bar set too high on the contemporary demographic track denies diplomas to thousands of Maryland kids, most of them minorities. A bar set too low makes a mockery of the testing program and perpetuates the bias of low expectations. This makes standard-setting the toughest job of a state school board.

And Freeman Hrabowski is uniquely qualified to insist on high, unyielding standards:

He is an African-American who believes blacks and other minorities can achieve at high levels if they are raised to value hard work and to appreciate the worth of education. He thinks it's "cool to be smart," an antithetical concept in many schools. And he decries the breakdown of discipline in academics. "If you break the rule, you pay the consequence," he said yesterday.

He is a mathematician. A native son of the segregated South, he earned his undergraduate degree at 19, his doctorate at 24.

With UMBC's Meyerhoff program and the school's heavy emphasis on academics in his 12 years as president, Hrabowski has demonstrated that it is cool to be smart. Reporters and fellow academics flock to UMBC to witness what some see as a miracle. In fact, it is a carefully tended culture in which chess always checkmates basketball.

Hrabowski is unapologetic in his defense of tests. When opponents of the SAT, for example, tee off on its purported bias against minorities, Hrabowski replies that he has been writing SAT test questions for years -- and that minorities can, and many do, ace the SAT. Hrabowski is the only college or university president I know who brags about the SAT scores of individual students.

"If you went in for an operation," he asked the state board, "would you want a surgeon who hadn't passed the test?"

Copeland strives to retain Baltimore's young teachers

First, city school officials threatened teacher layoffs and asked the teaching staff to defer wages while the system got its fiscal house in order.

But now, schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland is on a campaign to encourage younger teachers to "hang with us."

Faced with a potential exodus of teachers fed up with the financial crisis, Copeland is holding a series of what she calls "listening posts" in the schools. "I'm telling them that they are appreciated and that we need them," Copeland said yesterday.

She's also telling them that 885 city teachers have at least 30 years' experience and are eligible for retirement. If a substantial number exercise that option, the CEO said, "there'll be plenty of teaching jobs open."

Teachers get tax break for job-related purchases

As April 15 approaches, teachers are reminded they can claim up to $250 in out-of-pocket expenses for such items as textbooks, supplies and computer equipment on their 2003 federal tax return.

Given developments in Baltimore schools, a large number, if not a majority, of city teachers are eligible.

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