The dangers of telling the truth

EDUCATION BEAT

Law: `Persistently dangerous' schools must implement safety measures. But manipulating discipline data to avoid that label is easier.

August 29, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IN LEWIS Carroll's classic Through the Looking-Glass, Alice is constantly frustrated by the illogical and inconsistent demands of the Red and White Queens.

"Here the Red Queen began again. `Can you answer useful questions?' she said. `How is bread made?'

"`I know that!' Alice cried eagerly. `You take some flour ... '

"`Where do you pick the flower?' the White Queen asked. `In a garden, or in the hedges?'

"`Well, it isn't picked at all,' Alice explained. `It's ground.'

"`How many acres of ground?' said the White Queen. `You mustn't leave out so many things.'"

City school officials are feeling like Alice.

In 1998, four years before the No Child Left Behind Act, the school system adopted a "zero tolerance" student discipline policy. Students who behave violently are removed - for the safety of the vast majority of students who don't behave violently.

Those suspensions and expulsions are recorded and reported to the State Department of Education, which is charged with enforcing an obscure provision of the federal act that identifies "persistently dangerous" schools and allows students in these schools to transfer to safety.

Last week, the state put 15 Baltimore middle schools and one high school on probation for being persistently dangerous over the past two school years. One more year on the list, and the entire student body of those schools will have the right to transfer.

Here's where the White Queen would be pleased. In Maryland, a persistently dangerous school is defined as one in which, over three consecutive years, 2 1/2 percent or more of the student body has been suspended for more than 10 days or expelled for any of nine offenses, ranging from arson to sexual assault.

As CEO Bonnie S. Copeland pointed out, Baltimore was punished for making these 16 schools safer and for honestly reporting their suspension and expulsion data. In fact, she said, the systemwide crime rate has been reduced, and this year she projects a decrease in suspensions and expulsions at most of the 16 schools on probation.

School safety is serious business. Obviously, children can't learn if they fear for their lives. But few in education take the "persistently dangerous" provision of No Child Left Behind very seriously. Many states set the bar so low that very few schools qualify. In New York state last year, only two made the list - and one is a school for persistently dangerous students.

In theory, principals whose schools qualify will adopt disciplinary policies designed to make their classrooms, hallways and playgrounds safer. In practice, statistics on suspension and expulsion are easily manipulated. Principals can do the math.

The 16 schools on the state's radar screen may be in need of improved discipline, but to say that they are the most persistently dangerous in Maryland, based solely on their reported suspension and expulsion rates, is inaccurate and unfair.

Too few men, minorities and monetary rewards

The Maryland State Department of Education came out the other day with its 20th annual report on teacher supply and demand. There were few surprises. All 24 districts again were declared "geographic areas of projected shortage."

In the pool of teacher applicants last school year, there were too many who wanted to teach elementary education, art and biology, too few in most foreign languages, computer science and special education.

And way too few minorities and men. Two striking statistics: In a state where half of 869,000 public school students are minorities, 76 percent of 56,000 teachers are white. And three-quarters of the teachers hired last year were women.

The racial disparity is a huge problem. And it's going to get worse because many minority teachers and administrators who entered teaching in the 1960s will retire in the next few years, dropping the proportion of minority teachers nationally to less than 7 percent.

One reason people aren't going into teaching is that teachers' pay is considerably lower than that of other workers with similar education and skills. And the gap has been widening since 1996, according to a report released Thursday by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

Last year, according to the report, the weekly wage of all college graduates was $1,078, of teachers $833 and of all workers $766. Since 1979, teacher weekly wages relative to workers with similar education and experience fell 18.5 percent among women, 9.3 percent among men and 13.1 percent among all teachers.

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