Lessons learned in 33 years


Schools: A reporter reflects on how things have changed - and remained the same - at the state Board of Education over more than three decades.

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

THE FIRST state Board of Education meeting I covered for The Sun, 33 years ago this winter, was much more tumultuous than my swan song yesterday.

Three decades ago, the board almost always deferred to the 24 district superintendents in setting local policy. If a district wanted to ban corporal punishment, fine. If a district wanted to allow spanking, and several systems did, that was all right, too.

Until January 1971. After a long, intense and at times tearful debate at State Department of Education headquarters near what is now Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the board banned spanking statewide, defying the rural districts and much of the education establishment, including the teachers unions.

The vote was a huge victory for Ramsey B. Thomas, a Catonsville pediatrician and board member who had made the ban a crusade. Thomas argued that spanking was cruel and inhuman punishment. He was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, but not by many who saw the schools becoming increasingly soft on discipline. A little whack now and again wouldn't hurt a child or scar him emotionally, or so went the argument.

Times do change. In 2004, the state board thinks nothing of dictating local policy. A couple of years ago, the board told the local board in Prince George's County that it couldn't fire its superintendent. Power has shifted in Maryland from the district superintendents and boards to the state board and superintendent.

So there I was yesterday at my last meeting as a Sun reporter, 33 years later and perhaps some the wiser. Board membership, of course, has changed many times over. The panel was headed in 1971 by an Eastern Shore undertaker. Today, its president is a teacher educator from Cumberland.

And what consumes the Maryland board and most others in the nation these days? Keeping up with the No Child Left Behind Act. Ninety percent of the discussion yesterday had something to do with the federal act and its implications for the struggling schools of Baltimore City.

What would Ramsey Thomas have thought? In 1971, there were no computer systems to collect the data that fuel No Child Left Behind. Maryland, in fact, was just entering the era of statewide testing. Most districts administered the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. The functional tests were barely visible on the horizon, MSPAP and the new assessments well over the horizon. Though the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act was six years old, the federal government was but a bit player.

Everyone knew there were fundamental achievement gaps between whites and nearly everyone else (except Asian-Americans), but there was no real way to prove it and no federal mandate to close the gaps.

So yesterday, the state board spent at least an hour grilling Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland and her top aides about the city's progress, or lack thereof, in complying with the law. The board of 2004 reminds me of an exhausted parent whose child is a recovering addict. "This [system] has been broken for a long, long time," said board member Jo Ann T. Bell of Bowie in sadness and exasperation. "They have to correct the mistakes we were lied to about."

Some things, though, never change in education, which is one of the quaint aspects of covering it. A few months after the board's brave stand on spanking - what must the pro-spankers have been thinking? - the board committed dM-ijM-` vu all over again. Here was my lead on that story:

"The state Board of Education committed itself yesterday to improving the reading level of Maryland children - and to do it without producing another voluminous `study' which even those who can read will not read."

And in December 1972, Gov. Marvin Mandel appointed a task force to study public education in Maryland. Governors have come and gone in the three-plus decades since, but on Monday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. named an almost identical panel with an almost identical purpose.

State board tackles `alternative governance'

The state Board of Education approved "restructuring" plans yesterday for nine high schools and four elementary schools in Baltimore City, but 18 failing elementary and middle schools had their plans rejected.

In so doing, the board created a new title we'll no doubt be hearing more about: restructuring implementation specialist.

All of these schools' plans were rejected last month because they lacked "alternative governance," as required by the No Child Left Behind Act. So officials searched the law for an approach to alternative governance that would pass federal muster.

Thus the appointment of a "turn-around" specialist, known also as a restructuring implementation specialist, at each of the failing schools.

How that qualifies as alternative governance, neither Copeland nor state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick could say.

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