What's missing in discussion of city schools

July 14, 2004|By Michael Corbin

WITH THE publication of test scores for city schools, we have a rudimentary assessment of value for public education in Baltimore. But we would do well to reflect on the tumultuous year just ending to make sure we have our values in order.

You will recall that the politicians were never at a loss this year for some high-stakes gamesmanship that had as much to do with personal ambition and partisan ideological concerns as it did with the educational needs of Baltimore's children. Taking sides between the mayor and the governor over the $58 million budget shortfall was really beside the point to kids in the classroom.

The new school system administration, the state Department of Education and the school board spent an inordinate amount of time on damage control, the investigation of themselves for failures of management and the assignment of blame elsewhere. None of this, of course, inspired much confidence for students, many of whom are already so alienated from school that they drop out in staggering numbers.

The teachers' union circled the wagons to protect its diminishing prerogatives. The federated teachers continued to measure value by seniority rather than acquired wisdom.

The federal government continued along its path of irrationality, demanding that we make quantitative annual yearly progress toward leaving no child behind but providing nothing more than No. 2 pencils and bubble test sheets for us to get there. Moreover, the discussion of vouchers and school choice, which often dominate debate at the federal level, meant little to the kid in Baltimore showing up at his neighborhood school trying to get an education.

Local media pundits and columnists and various social scientists and think-tank staff members held forth with great vigor and certitude about what was wrong or what needed to be changed. But few volunteered to help in the classroom, tutor in an after-school program or generally provide much by way of concrete help to young people.

The 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education did give us a moment's pause to observe how the tragic divisions of race are still the open secret that haunts Baltimore's ostensibly public education offerings. It is not too strong to talk about an institutional apartheid in many urban school systems today. City kids were still waiting on change that is coming with what was said to be all deliberate speed.

You see, a kid doesn't really have time to wait on all the good intentions from those involved in providing for, arguing over and policing public education. Righteous indignation and rhetorical flourishes are not pedagogically sound teaching methods. A five-year plan or the Thornton plan or the latest plan to fix what ails us, to balance the budget, keep creditors happy, implement the latest curricular reform and repair the decayed physical plant didn't really help this year; plans for the future don't help in the classroom today.

So individual stories of actual young people, young Baltimoreans, young Americans are what I would offer, as we say in teacher jargon, as an "authentic assessment" of what matters, of what values beyond our Maryland School Assessment totals we should be talking about.

There is Cory, on his way to dropping out, who came back from the knife fight that nearly severed his arm to finish the school year. He got an A in English and finished 50 pages of his autobiography. He wanted to write it because of his newfound sense of mortality at age 15.

Brittanie, who lost her mother and didn't want to come back -- what with the demands of raising younger siblings -- always led the class discussion when philosophical questions were raised. Hong Mei read over 30 books and began to negotiate American life after arriving this year from Singapore. Two young men read their first book ever, cover to cover -- this in the ninth grade. Nicole and Marcus dropped out, two of more than I want to count.

There isn't space to go on, although the stories go on.

By themselves, they don't gainsay the well-intentioned partisans of public education in Baltimore. But this is offered as an indictment of those this year who didn't pay attention to such stories and of those next year or in subsequent years who don't pay attention and ask instead for a young person to wait. They don't have time to wait.

Michael Corbin teaches ninth-grade English at Patterson High School in Baltimore.

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