The folly of seizing schools

STATE officials could seize worst schools," proclaimed the headline over an article describing a proposed plan under which low-achieving Maryland public schools would revert to the direction of the state Department of Education.

If the state board approves the plan, which was subjected to public hearings this week, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick could put several "educationally bankrupt" schools (based on scores in statewide tests and other criteria) in receivership as early as next September.


She would then place the schools in the hands of a private contractor or university.

The proposal plays to a common public impulse since concern first grew about low-achieving public schools back in the '60s. Twenty-one states now have laws outlining consequences for schools that are consistent failures. The image such laws create is a familiar one. A concerned outsider will enter these troubled schools and enforce standards ignored by the resident faculties. Under the guiding hand of the outside forces (some from private industry, where they know how to run an organization), children will reach their higher potential.


But in reality, state seizure of troubled schools may not be quite as helpful as this picture envisions. The state will find, as outsiders generally do, ingrained obstacles to high performance.

And unless Dr. Grasmick is prepared to confront these endemic problems, there is no real likelihood her intervention will make much of a difference.

When the board takes over the state's lowest-achieving schools, for example, it will find massive numbers of children reading several years below grade level by the time they reach the fourth or fifth grades. Their work will be similarly impaired in writing and mathematics.

A look at data from a major national survey will indicate how widespread the problem will be. The "Nation's Report Card," issued as part of the highly respected National Assessment of Educational Progress, has released the latest collection of depressing statistics about the attainments of the nation's school children. Nationally, only 25 percent of fourth, eighth and 12th graders are performing in math at grade level.

In the low-achieving schools the state board talks about seizing, the troubles will be magnified many times over.

And the sheer numbers of children operating far below traditional grade level creates punishing problems for anyone running such schools -- resident faculty or outside saviors.

In my own seven years as a fifth-grade teacher in Baltimore City schools, I encountered vast numbers of below-level readers. As a fifth-grade teacher, I commonly taught children reading at the second- or third-grade level and many others who were barely literate.

How these children "got to be this way" is a study for another occasion. But the problems this situation presents to the teacher are well worth reviewing before the state Department of Education rides in to save the day.


Question: Were there appropriate social studies textbooks at my disposal to teach an appropriate fifth-grade social studies program to children reading at the second-grade level? Were there basal readers or library books appropriate for these children -- books which would treat topics of interest to 12-year-old children, but which were written at a reading level at which these kids could function?

Answer: Such materials weren't generally available, and I suspect they still aren't. Unless Ms. Grasmick's agents have a magic cache of such materials, they will find themselves as I found myself -- working in a room with delightful children but without the appropriate materials to provide for their needs.

Question: When an "educationally bankrupt" school is taken over, will that school's dropout rate diminish?

Answer: Unlikely. According to a report released Thursday by Students First, an advocacy group in the city, if current trends don't change, more than half of all Baltimore City students who entered the ninth grade last year will drop out before they reach the 12th grade. How will the state's seizing a few schools change this trend?

Ms. Grasmick's proposal speaks of zeal, but it takes more than zeal to run a classroom. Are Maryland's under-achieving students being provided with appropriate textbooks and instructional programs? The state board should make it its business to find out. And if it finds out what I think it will, it might better spend its time demanding better results for the $2 billion Maryland spends on public education every year.

The problem described is a major problem. It's also correctable. It won't be corrected by taking over a few schools.



Robert Somerby is a professional comedian based in Baltimore.