A failed plan

December 08, 2005

Mayor Martin O'Malley and city schools' chief Bonnie S. Copeland are understandably upset by the state Board of Education's rejection of the Baltimore schools' annual plan for reform. But whatever political motivations, if any, may be behind actions by the board and state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, the rejection is another harsh reminder that the city school system must do better by its students.

What's at issue is an annual update of a 2003 master plan required by the so-called Thornton legislation, showing how the school system is boosting student performance and narrowing or eliminating achievement gaps among groups of students. This year's nearly 500-page update addressed issues including school safety, curriculum changes and student progress.

But a panel of officials at the state Department of Education and outside experts that reviewed the city's plan felt that it did not address adequately what state education officials believe is the magnitude of problems facing Baltimore schools. For example, 95 city schools (more than half) are on the state's watch list for low performance, and in 56 of those schools, things are so bad that the schools must restructure; the city is lagging in its efforts to have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, as the federal No Child Left Behind law requires by next year; and Baltimore's dropout rate is about 11.7 percent, nearly four times the state standard.

Ms. Grasmick and the review panel felt that city school officials came up with inadequate discrete programs rather than comprehensive approaches to try to fix the problems. A greater sense of urgency may have been the most critical missing ingredient.

Rejection of the plan, however, raises questions for both sides. Since Ms. Copeland had some warning of the plan's deficiencies, why didn't she or other top officials mount a more vigorous defense before, and not after, the state school board acted? At the same time, since many of these problems are not new, can state and city officials cut through seemingly increasing tensions and really collaborate to find solutions?

The state wants a new plan by next March and an outside monitor, hired at the city school system's expense, to help ensure implementation. If the result is greater student progress, it could be money well spent - and a lesson learned.

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