Report criticizes city schools' instruction, training

District officials say they are already implementing audit's recommendations

September 19, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

An independent audit of Baltimore schools has found numerous shortcomings in the instructional program, ranging from teachers' inability to hold students to high academic standards to a well-funded but disorganized system of training school staff.

The audit, released Friday by the school system, was one of several "corrective actions" that the state ordered it to undertake because of a high percentage of failing schools.

Unlike other recent reviews of the system's finances and operations, this audit examined the city schools' ability to teach a consistent curriculum and develop an effective teaching staff.

"The district has been consumed by both fiscal management and governance issues," said Dennie Palmer Wolf, one of the lead researchers who worked on the audit.

"But the bottom line is, it's a public school system. The quality of education is what matters."

City school officials said they have been keeping tabs on the audit's progress and implementing reforms they knew would be recommended.

"There are no real surprises in here," schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland said. "If anything, it's very affirming [of] the direction we've been taking."

Copeland said she had welcomed the audit when state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick recommended it two summers ago and looked forward to the guidance it would provide.

Grasmick said she was satisfied with the report and hoped the school system would take it seriously.

"I'm very pleased that this was done," she said. "I think their findings are quite accurate, and I think their recommendations appear quite solid."

The audit was conducted by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm that specializes in urban education.

The analysis cost $250,000 and was paid for with a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a Chicago-based philanthropic organization.

The researchers visited classrooms during the 2003-2004 school year, evaluated curriculum materials and interviewed teachers, principals, administrators and state education officials.

Among the audit's findings:

Few teachers know how to vary instruction to reach students with different ability levels in the same class.

Many students are given a "steady diet of routinized, basic-skills instruction that is rarely challenging or motivating," especially in the poorest schools.

The system spends nearly $60 million a year on professional development but does so in an ineffective and inconsistent manner.

The central office is poorly structured and unable to support high-quality teaching.

There is no uniformity in curriculum because schools are allowed to use whatever programs they choose, and there is no consistent approach to teaching reading and math.

The report paired its criticisms with detailed suggestions about how the system could improve.

It also urged Copeland, the school board and the community to nurture the "fragile" academic progress that the system has been making as it continues to recover from a $58 million budget deficit.

"It's very clear that the district can make progress," said Wolf, a researcher at the Annenberg Institute. "There are great results from this last [Maryland School Assessment], especially in the elementary schools, but it's very clear that middle and high schools aren't turning around in the same way."

Along with the audit, Copeland issued a news release Friday to highlight dozens of reforms the system has recently made to address problems outlined by the researchers.

For example, the system has created two director positions to oversee literacy and math instruction; launched a leadership development task force to develop innovative staff recruitment and training programs; and created a new "instructional framework" to help make the quality of instruction at all grade levels more consistent throughout the system.

Wolf said the audit team made an effort to tone down its criticism and focus instead on making recommendations.

"The district can't, in some sense, withstand yet another body blow," she said. "There has to be a blueprint for positive action, and that's what we were trying to provide."

Improvement ideas

Some recommendations from the audit team that examined instruction and staff training in Baltimore schools.

Reduce the number of curricula.

Develop a unified approach toward literacy coaching.

Emphasize the student's "voice" over that of the teacher in classroom instruction.

Create a more efficient and capable central office.

Make smarter use of funds for professional development for school employees and administrators.

Inform the public regularly about the system's progress and actively engage the news media in reporting successes and difficulties.

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