As the Baltimore school system prepares to implement a more stringent curriculum next year, sample evaluations of more than two dozen schools show that many are struggling with how to effectively teach children.
In an evaluation of teachers' instruction, none of the schools in the first round of assessments received a "highly effective" ranking, and nearly 40 percent were deemed "not effective," according to reports obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request.
The evaluations also noted other issues, including complaints about bullying and students skipping class.
In a review of Forest Park High School, for example, the evaluator found that the quality of student work was low and that an emphasis on graduating students led teachers to focus on passing students rather than ensuring they were learning.
"Teacher focus groups reported that they had been directed by leadership to increase the graduation rate and that if seniors did not complete the projects assigned, teachers should change the assignments so students can pass," the evaluator wrote.
In the past two years, the system has focused on instruction and leadership, as teachers and students prepare to embark on a radically different curriculum, with principals at the helm. The more stringent national curriculum, called the common core standards, will begin to be implemented in the state, and the city, next school year.
But initial results from assessments conducted in the spring of 2011 show that even the top-performing schools with the highest test scores in the district need to strengthen their teaching programs and set up a climate that embraces higher standards.
Though the schools included some of the best in the district, such as the national Blue Ribbon-winning Mount Washington Elementary School, only two received "effective" ratings in instruction — the Baltimore School for the Arts and Mount Royal Elementary School.
Nonetheless, city school officials said there were few surprises in the reviews.
"This ... requires people to take a look in the mirror in a way they may not have before, and we've needed to for a long time," said Sonja Santelises, chief academic officer for the city school system.
The Baltimore reviews, which include pages of narrative observations, were conducted by a team of professionals from School Works, an educational consulting company, and city school officials. "School effectiveness reviews" also have been done in cities such as Chicago, Boston, Oakland and Charlotte, N.C. The reviews cost $15,000 per school visit.
Eventually, all schools in the district will undergo the extensive observations, and the district will also use them to guide school closures, internal overhauls and charter renewals.
The assessments rank schools as "highly effective" to "emerging" to "not effective" in 13 areas related to instruction, personnel, community engagement and leadership.
The instruction section measured several factors, including whether teachers planned and delivered highly effective instruction, used data to adjust their practices, and established a classroom environment that supported high-quality instruction.
Mount Washington, which consistently performs well on standardized tests, received an "emerging" in the category of whether teachers delivered highly effective instruction.
"Teachers do not consistently engage students in rigorous work," the evaluator wrote. "In 100 percent of the classrooms observed, basic recall or comprehension questions, such as 'What did we just do?' or 'What are our multiplication facts?' were frequent. Questioning requiring higher-order thinking … was far less frequent."
Student behavior affected instruction at other schools that were evaluated.
The evaluators of Digital Harbor High School, which ranks consistently as one of the most popular schools in a city where students choose where they attend, found that students often skipped class.
"Many students were observed in the hallways and stairwells during class periods throughout the day," the evaluator wrote. "While staff and teachers often admonish wandering students to go to class, teachers admit that their efforts often result in simply moving the problem to a different part of the building. Digital Harbor has not been able to institute obvious, immediate strategies to address this critical issue."
At Brehms Lane Elementary, observers noted other problems, and students reported that behaviors such as bullying interfered with learning.