Road map to better schools

December 27, 2005|By CHESTER E. FINN AND ANDY SMARICK

Baltimore's public schools remain sorely troubled today despite decades of attention from countless smart, committed people. The problem has been the reliance on politically popular but ineffective "reforms." Measures such as increased spending and smaller classes delight teachers unions and sound appealing to the public and elected officials, but they haven't worked in other cities, and clearly, they haven't worked in Baltimore. Moreover, they offer no prospect of generating the type of broad, systemic reform the city's schools need.

Fortunately, some community leaders - particularly a few visionary foundations - have been quietly pursuing more meaningful paths. Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools, two nationally recognized programs, are now supplying a trickle of highly talented teachers and principals to city schools. In recent years, several fine independently operated public schools have opened. And some of the city's huge high schools have been divided into more manageable learning communities.

These are the seeds of a promising long-range reform strategy - developing a new generation of educators, leaders and schools wholly committed to better student achievement. But for them to take root and bloom, they must be cultivated. That's why the recommendations of the Steele Commission are so crucial to the future of Baltimore, which has many problems associated with its schools and has tried many reforms over the years.

The Governor's Commission on Quality Education, chaired by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, recently released its recommendations for overhauling Maryland's K-12 education system. We hope the city's legislators will embrace three areas of the commission's report and launch a true renaissance in Baltimore's schools.

First, improving the state's charter school law would build on the success of the city's "new schools initiative," which allows a handful of schools to create innovative programs and operate with more flexibility. Several of them, such as KIPP Ujima Village Academy, are among the highest-performing schools in the city. A more flexible and welcoming charter law would spur the development of more creative, results-oriented, accountable public schools.

Second, we need to change the way we recruit, train and pay educators. This vital profession should be open to able, dedicated adults of all stripes, not just those who come out of colleges of education. Teach for America, which recruits top graduates of top colleges to teach in urban schools, has shown that smart, energetic newcomers can have a powerful impact on school culture and student learning. Maryland can make room for new blood - and address today's teacher shortages - by creating additional pathways into public school classrooms, including alternate forms of certification.

Then we need a better way to pay those teachers. Union contracts create rigid salary scales that base compensation on paper credentials and years of experience without regard to classroom effectiveness. Such archaic arrangements sever the link between what teachers earn and what students learn. Maryland needs a new system that treats teachers like professionals in other fields. If you teach in a high-need school or field, know your subject inside and out, and consistently boost your students' achievement, you should be paid a lot more.

Third, we need policies that fully empower principals and compensate them fairly. Principals are, in effect, CEOs of multimillion-dollar public enterprises. Under federal and state accountability laws, such as No Child Left Behind, they are responsible for the achievement of their students.

But they don't have much control over what happens in their schools or who works in them. School systems should be free to recruit proven, results-oriented executives from other fields to become the next generation of principals.

They should have wide-ranging authority over school budgets, personnel and facilities. And they should be compensated like executives, including adjustments for the difficulty of their assignments and the success of their schools.

If we want different results from Baltimore's schools, we need to implement different strategies. This prospect alarms the many interest groups that are quite comfortable with the status quo. But for the sake of tens of thousands of students, we must change direction. Several innovative programs have given us a running start, and now the Steele Commission's recommendations have given us a road map.

Chester E. Finn, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. His e-mail is cefinnjr@aol.com. Andy Smarick works for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. His e-mail is andy@publicharters.org. Both were members of the Steele commission.

Columnist Clarence Page is on vacation.

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