Is policy 60% full or empty promise?

August 29, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

I wouldn't mind writing only 12 inches today, rather than the usual 20. That also would make my detractors pretty happy, I'm guessing.

I'd like to have paid just $2.50 for the scone and coffee I picked up yesterday morning, rather than the $4.16 the guy at the register charged me.

If you can figure out the math in those two real-life examples, take a moment to thank your teachers. For the rest of you, in honor of the yesterday's start of the school year, I will give you the answer: I was imagining living my day at the 60 percent level.

Sixty, of course, is the new 70. Starting with this academic year, the Baltimore city school board decided this summer, students only need a grade of 60 to pass, rather than the previous 70.

Sixty percent seems quite a bargain, if you're talking about the length of a column or the price of breakfast. Maybe not so much, though, if you're talking school passing rates.

It seemed awfully low to me, like the way they used to say you got 400 points on your SATs just for printing your name correctly, with a Number 2 pencil. On a 10-question test, you're now allowed to get four answers wrong, rather than three, and still pass?

Surprisingly enough, though, 60 has been good enough to pass elsewhere in the state, including the sainted Howard and Montgomery counties.

While those districts are often held up as the high achievers to Baltimore's underachiever when it comes to the state's public schools, parents in the city aren't necessarily happy to be in the same league as Columbia or Bethesda in this case.

"I don't like it," James Allen says. He was waiting to pick up his daughter, Shaniquya, 11, from her first day at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School in Northeast Baltimore yesterday. "You're taking a child backward, not forward."

Allen, who works for an engineering firm that designs traffic signals, knows something about failing. As a boy in city schools, he failed fifth grade - "I wanted to be the class clown" - and had to repeat it.

"My expectation for her is going to be higher," he says.

Several parents - and even a student or two - whom I've met in recent days feel the same way.

"If it's 60, all you have to do is come to school to pass," Sean Walker, 15, says dismissively.

Sean, a 15-year-old heading into his second year at the college-prep charter school, Coppin Academy, plans to aim higher, regardless of what school policy is.

"My goal is to get above an 80 in my classes," he says. "I'm at about 76; I'm going to bring that up."

Some, though, welcome the change. Dimitria Limmios, 15, and Tierra Powell, 16, are vo-tech students who applauded the new policy, saying it will help those who find themselves just missing a passing grade.

"Now, if you get a 68, you won't fail," Tierra said.

For all the hubbub the new policy has generated, I wonder how much of an effect this will really have at the individual student level. I think most kids, when it comes to school, are motivated by any number of things - their own aspirations, for example, or their parents' expectations - that rank higher in importance than a change in school board policy.

I also think in most classrooms, teachers pretty much have an idea who is doing passing work and who isn't - whether you call it "70" or "60" doesn't really change how students are performing.

Of course, as with anything involving city schools, the change has provided campaign fodder: The school board's decision was defended by Mayor Martin O'Malley, and decried by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich - who as a result is now threatening not to follow the mayor's recommendation that three school board members be reappointed. And one city councilman has proposed that the schools revert to total Baltimore control from the current city-state shared responsibility

Meanwhile, school began yesterday, and to the parents and students, the political squabbling doesn't change anything immediately.

They've seen all the news accounts - they realize there's a new interim CEO, the fifth in that office in nine years, but they're not really sure why the last one left or how long this one will stay. They've seen that test scores are up, but the city still is in the cellar compared to other districts in the state.

Maybe they've always known this, or maybe the turmoil within the school system in recent years has taught them not to expect the solutions to come from above.

"Home - that's where everything starts," Allen, the Hazelwood parent, says. " You don't send your kids to school for them to raise your child."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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