School reform bogged down

April 17, 2005|By Michael Corbin

BALTIMORE neighborhood high schools are in the middle of what was billed at its initiation as the most comprehensive school reform in 30 years.

It was clear to many four years ago, when the "Blueprint for Baltimore's Neighborhood High Schools" was unveiled, that the city's high schools were, in the words of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, "obsolete institutions ... limiting - even ruining - the lives of [students] every year."

Mr. Gates gave Baltimore $12 million in 2002 to help change those schools, so he has leave to talk. He reiterated this point at the National Governors Association's education summit in February, at which the governors widely agreed with Mr. Gates that high school education in America is seriously undermined by the institutions meant to provide that education.

Baltimore school leaders should be commended for recognizing the need for change and proposing an ambitious plan in 2001. But the ambitions of that plan have yet to be realized. More important, the substance of the institutional critique provided by Mr. Gates and many others is becoming lost in translating blueprints to real classrooms, real teachers and real students' lives.

One example is the breakup of big high schools into "smaller learning communities," which reformers have embraced nationally and in Baltimore. Research and common sense suggest that kids prefer smaller schools to large, impersonal ones. But there is no reliable evidence that centrally administered smaller schools qualitatively change the intellectual and academic prospects of students.

In Baltimore, the breakup of Northern High School was the pilot project for this reform effort and suggestive of how the good intentions of the reformers have been lost in translation to reality. For the students at the schools that were Northern, officials can provide no real evidence of substantive academic improvement in the smaller schools that were created.

Such evidence is conspicuous in its absence, not just at Northern but also for the other ostensibly reformed neighborhood Baltimore high schools - a striking absence for such a highly touted reform. The point is not that these schools are worse than before, but rather that they have not really changed what high school is about in Baltimore.

The more than 20 evacuations for fires this academic year in the Dr. Samuel L. Banks High School - part of the Northern breakup - suggests that reforming the reformed schools may be in order.

School officials claim that such reform is an immense task and must be given time to work and can't yet be judged. But seeing reform in making schools smaller is characteristic of the larger failure of imagination by school officials. That failure can be seen in micromanaging everything from assigning curricula to choosing teachers to dictating staffing models and the content of professional development.

The task of reform is immense precisely because school officials believe they must centrally implement all of the reforms and innovations. Officials simply can't imagine entrusting responsibilities to teachers, parents and students.

The substance of the critique by Mr. Gates and others is that high school, as presently constituted, was designed for an earlier era. An industrial-era school is the product of an industrial-era central administration and an industrial-era teachers union. The problem is we have postmodern, information-era kids who need an education.

From all of the students I have spoken with and taught in Baltimore, there is a deeply felt consciousness of the inequities with which they are confronted. They are aware of the two-tiered system of neighborhood schools and citywide schools, and they know that getting into a citywide school is not just about official entrance requirements. They know their schools have de facto racial segregation. They know their buildings are substandard.

But, most poignant, they know that institutional education, even the reformed variety, often has little to do with their lives and genuinely improving their life chances. This is not a problem of bad kids, bad parents or bad culture, as is our wont to say when we look at school failure. This is the problem of institutional and institutionalized failure - a failure in a democracy that we all have a stake in.

The impulse that gave rise to the original reform effort and is echoed in the recent comments by Mr. Gates is correct. The neighborhood high schools in Baltimore are obsolete, positively harmful institutions, even in their reformed guise. We need to return to that impulse.

The small learning communities and innovative schools must be given the resources and genuine autonomy to make change. The Baltimore Teachers Union must abandon its industrial-era model of labor relations for these new schools. School system administrators must decentralize decision-making so that teachers, parents and students can genuinely transform public high schools into something worthy of our city and our country.

How can we ask and expect kids to change when the adults, with our blueprints, can't make real differences, can't even imagine them sometimes?

Michael Corbin teaches at the Academy for College and Career Exploration, an "innovation" public high school in Baltimore that is part of the larger high school reform effort.

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