Don't impede city schools' progress

April 04, 2006|By KALMAN R. HETTLEMAN

There is some truth to the bleak picture of the Baltimore schools that the Maryland State Department of Education paints. But it's not the whole truth, and as a result, many state mandates, including last week's attempted takeover of four high schools, are unsound and almost certainly counterproductive.

The bad news about city schools is all too familiar. Many students are far below grade standards. Well-qualified teachers are in short supply. Discipline problems and dropout rates are high. Scarce funds cause excessive class sizes, rundown facilities, lack of academic interventions and so on.

But substantial progress can be documented.

For example, test scores have risen steadily in elementary schools. Fiscal stability has been achieved. Schools are cleaner and safer. High school reform is nationally acclaimed. The graduation rate has climbed to its highest rate in 10 years.

So how do state and city officials and parents sort out this half-empty, half-full information? Should we stay the course of improvement or instead support the state's call for radical surgery that strips away local control?

There are two approaches to this conundrum. First, is the city schools' progress at least as good as that in comparable urban districts? Unfortunately, there is no conclusive answer. Tests differ from state to state, and cities vary in size, student demographics and funding.

The only nationwide test is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures states as a whole but not individual districts. Last year, for the first time, that test was used in 11 large cities, but Baltimore was not one of them.

Still, there are some indicators, and from the best of these, the city school system is at or near the top nationally in relative progress.

The Council of Great City Schools publishes the most comprehensive data and analyses covering over 60 of the nation's largest urban districts. Among cities close in size and demography, Baltimore ranks high in the percentage of African-American and low-income students, variables that usually predict low student achievement.

Nonetheless, on reading and math, the Baltimore public school system showed a more positive trend line than most similar cities and, though exact comparisons are not possible, had higher scores than most of its counterparts.

The Great Cities study for 2004 also cited Baltimore as one of only seven cities where reading and math scores improved faster than the average in their respective states in all grades tested.

Sam Stringfield, a former city school board member and a scholar on school performance, wrote last year in a research journal article that Baltimore schools are "among the more promising urban reform stories in the country."

This leads to the second line of inquiry into whether the state's actions are well grounded. Since the city's rate of progress is in the top national ranks, has the state offered in the past - or does it offer now - concrete proposals that hold out the promise of faster reform? In other words, has the state met the burden of justifying its far-reaching interference with city efforts and local control?

The answers here are clearly "no."

The state has been intimately involved in every aspect of city schools since 1997 and has powerful authority and influence, including, most recently, the state management team imposed by federal court decree in the long-standing special education lawsuit.

The state can't show specific instances in which the city has been unwilling to adopt state recommendations that are workable and fiscally feasible. State educators have, in fact, participated in the development of many current city initiatives. A notable example is the state's approval of the city blueprint for improving the same high schools that the state now proposes to take over.

The state's shortage of better ideas was revealed in the article last week by Sun reporter Liz Bowie summarizing the lack of success that states across the country have had with takeovers.

State officials thus have not met the burden of showing that their radical prescriptions for the ills of the city schools are wise.

Nor are its one-sided, negative portrayals of the city schools productive. Staff at all level is distracted and demoralized. Recruitment of teachers and families is hindered.

In any event, whether the General Assembly overrides Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s expected veto of the one-year moratorium on state takeovers enacted last week, city and state educators have a lot of make-up work to do.

Under the best of circumstances, it's hard to achieve reform in impoverished urban school districts. It's nearly impossible when state and city officials don't pull together. One hopes that a fuller, more factual assessment of the risks in uprooting the budding seeds of reform in the city will still be undertaken and our children will have the best chance to academically blossom.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a member of the Baltimore school board. His e-mail is

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