Mayor to study Chicago reform


Schools: Martin O'Malley plans a trip to see how Paul G. Vallas saved the Windy City's education system. He might want to visit Philadelphia, too.

April 04, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MAYOR Martin O'Malley is so intrigued by the education system in Chicago that he has scheduled a fact-finding trip to the Windy City this month.

He'll find a school system that underwent considerable reform in the late 1990s under the direction of Paul G. Vallas, the city's former budget director appointed schools chief in 1995 by Mayor Richard M. Daley. In five years, until Vallas fell out of favor at City Hall and resigned, he eliminated deficits in the system's $3.5 billion budget, raised test scores (which then leveled), ended the automatic promotion of students and built 76 schools.

He emerged with the reputation as a fixer of failed systems, a kind of Lee Iacocca of urban education, and drove east -- Vallas hates flying -- to rescue the schools of Philadelphia. O'Malley might like to visit the City of Brotherly Love, too. Aside from being much larger, the Philadelphia district is so much like Baltimore that it's almost a parallel universe. Mayor Frank Rizzo once said of his schools, "We need excellence in public education, and if the teachers can't do it, we'll send in a couple of policemen."

I'm not dismissing Bonnie Copeland, who has been so busy putting out fires that she really hasn't had a chance to be an educational leader, and I'm not promoting Vallas, who seems to run in five-year cycles and landed in Philadelphia only in the summer of 2002. But Philadelphia magazine called him "endearingly neurotic," a trait that would help him in Baltimore along about 2007. He's only 50.

Recently there was a crisis in Philadelphia that could just as well have happened in Baltimore, and it was instructive to see how Vallas handled it.

Half of the city's middle-school teachers could not pass a teacher licensing test, and nearly two-thirds of middle-school math teachers flunked. Part of the reason is that in Pennsylvania, as in Maryland, middle-school teachers can teach with elementary certification, which means they don't have to have college majors in specific subjects such as math.

But Vallas made no excuses. He didn't even blame the No Child Left Behind Act, the easy out for frustrated officials.

"Look, we're holding the kids to higher standards," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "We need to hold our teachers to higher standards, too." And as for the federal law, "We shouldn't have waited until we had the proverbial gun to our head. ... You have to admit to a problem before you can address it."

Moreover, he made the results public. While the Pennsylvania Department of Education left it to the commonwealth's 502 districts to release their test results if they chose, Vallas did it forthrightly.

Commented the pro-testing National Council on Teacher Quality: "Twenty-three percent of all middle-school teachers in the state have failed the test, but apparently only Philadelphia schools are going to be held publicly accountable."

Here is a sample math question from Pennsylvania's test for middle-school teachers:

In a class of 29 children, each of 20 children has a dog and each of 15 has a cat. How many of the children have both a dog and a cat.

A) None of the children necessarily has both

B) Exactly 5

C) Exactly 6

D)At least 6 and at most 15

(Answer at end)

At least one day a year, don't believe all you read

The Diamondback, the University of Maryland, College Park's student newspaper, had quite a scoop Thursday. It reported that university President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. and University of Virginia President John T. Casteen were switching jobs "in a trade believed to be the first of its kind."

Mote was quoted that he had always been a Cavalier fan. "It has become quite clear to me that this university was never going to be in the same league as UVA."

"Hundreds of angry high school valedictorians in khakis and polo shirts poured out of their classes" in Charlottesville to protest the trade, apparently orchestrated by Maryland system chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan, said the story by reporter John Libelman.

It was, of course, an April Fools' joke.

The correct answer is D.

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