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A chance to turn schools around Reform: To get the most out of promised extra aid, Baltimore needs to try policies that have been shown to work.


Robert E. Slavin of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk was misidentified in the byline and credit line of an article that appeared in Perspective on Sunday.

The Sun regrets the error.

BALTIMORE HAS a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make its ailing, beleaguered school system a model of urban education. Decisions to be made in the next few months will determine the course of reform in the Baltimore City public schools for the next decade or longer.

What has created this possibility is the proposed settlement of a set of lawsuits involving the city, the state, the American Civil Liberties Union and special education advocates.

Assuming that the proposed settlement clears the courts and the legislature approves it, the city schools would get an extra $254 million in state aid over the next five years. The figure includes $230 million in school operating aid, beginning with $30 million next year, and $50 million in each of the next four years. Also, the city would get about $24 million in additional school renovation money.

A new school board, jointly selected by the city and state, would appoint a new leadership team for the city schools.

How optimistic can we be that new funds and new leaders will turn the Baltimore schools around?

Certainly, competent leaders with enhanced resources can solve some of the management problems that afflict the school system. They can probably improve fiscal management, install a working computer system, get an accurate count of special education students, and reduce boiler explosions.

Yet more efficient management, while necessary, is not sufficient to make a meaningful difference in the academic performance of Baltimore's children. It would be entirely possible to create a system that runs like a well-oiled machine but does nothing to move students toward state and national performance standards.

Student achievement cannot change unless the instruction is substantially better. This is not to criticize Baltimore teachers, who, by and large, do an extraordinary job given their difficult working conditions. However, teachers everywhere, and especially those in large urban districts, need the resources, the professional development, and the support to use instructional methods and materials known to make a significant difference in student achievement.

Research in education over the past 20 years has identified an array of programs, practices and policies that can have a substantial impact on the performance of children. If Baltimore City's new funds are targeted on bringing these programs and practices into wide spread use throughout the system, with a clear and consistent focus on the quality of implementation and close linkages with state performance standards (such as those assessed by the Maryland School Peformance Assessment Program, or MSPAP), $50 million per year can go a long way in helping all children achieve their full potential.

Some of the investments most likely to pay off in enhanced achievement are schoolwide reform models that change just about everything in a school, from curriculum and instruction to school organization and assessment.

It so happens that Baltimore is particularly well placed for this type of reform. Maryland was selected as one of 10 national sites to be involved with New American Schools, a private foundation that has funded the development of seven whole-school reform designs. The designs are very different from each other, but all share a commitment to high standards.

Our own Roots and Wings design is one example. Roots and Wings restructures elementary schools to build a firm basis in basic skills, such as reading, writing, and math ("roots"), and to engage students in creative simulations and investigations ("wings"). First piloted in St. Mary's County, Roots and Wings has strong evidence of effectiveness on MSPAP, and is used in 20 Baltimore County schools, as well as in St. Mary's.

Roots and Wings incorporates an earlier program, Success for All, that began in Baltimore and is now used in 450 schools in 31 states, but only in three Baltimore City schools.

Other New American School designs include Expeditionary Learning, which engages students in learning expeditions based Outward Bound; and ATLAS, which emphasizes projects, demonstrations of competence, parent involvement, and mental health.

ATLAS is used in several Prince George's County schools, and Expeditionary Learning is being piloted in two Baltimore County schools. ATLAS incorporates James Comer's nationally known School Development Program, which is used in 78 schools in Prince George's County and in many large urban districts.

Other schoolwide change models not part of New American Schools also have great promise. One example is the Baltimore Curriculum Project currently being piloted in six city elementary schools, which incorporates proven reading and math approaches. Core Knowledge, a reform model developed by E.D. Hirsch to focus schools on rigorous content, is also being evaluated in Baltimore and elsewhere.

One of the New American Schools designs, the Modern Red Schoolhouse also uses Core Knowledge curricula. The program being implemented at Patterson High School is showing promising early results, and may be worth expanding.

In addition to schoolwide change models, there are dozens of programs available to Baltimore schools that have excellent evidence of effectiveness. For example, Project Impact is a math program originally developed and evaluated in Montgomery County and now being tried out in Baltimore City. It is based on principles of mathematics learning that have been revolutionizing math instruction throughout the world.

Various approaches to writing instruction that emphasize planning, drafting, editing, revising, and "publishing" compositions have had a profound impact on student writing performance, but are inconsistently used in Baltimore. Approaches to beginning reading instruction that balance phonics and meaning, such as the curriculum used in our Success for All program, have been found to provide a firm basis for success in this subject. Cutting across particular subjects, there are very effective approaches to classroom management, peer tutoring, cooperative learning, and after-school programs.

There are also effective approaches for strategies to help specific types of students who are at risk.

For example, Reading Recovery provides one-to-one tutoring to first graders having reading problems, and can help them to read on level (and stay out of special education). For high schools, there are very effective approaches to reducing dropouts and to increasing the numbers of promising students from impoverished backgrounds who go on to college.

Of course, implementing effective programs across 177 elementary and secondary schools is not like turning on a faucet and expecting better outcomes to pour out. Each of these requires extended professional development, follow-up, and assessment. Each is known to be effective if implemented with care, thought and fidelity. And schools need to receive assistance to ensure the quality of their new programs.

Innovative practices cannot be successful if they are forced on ,, the teachers and other staff who are expected to implement them. Yet every school need not reinvent the wheel. School staffs need to have opportunities to learn about a range of reform models and to then make informed choices among effective alternatives. They should be able to view videotapes, send delegations to visit programs under way, and talk with program representatives and other educators to be sure that they are making a good choice.

Schools that are failing might be required to choose something, but it is essential that each school's educators be able to exercise their professional judgment about what would be best for them.

Finally, the city school system needs to substantially build up its capacity to evaluate each of the programs it implements. The system must be able to provide reliable, meaningful information about program effectiveness, especially in terms of improving students' performance on the MSPAP. In this way, the system will learn over time how to provide better programs to its schools, to expand those that are working and weed out those that are not.

There's nothing magic about money. The impact of money on student achievement depends entirely on how it's spent. There are sure to be far more calls on this new money than can possibly be granted.

In making the hard decisions about how to spend the money, let's remember the children. They deserve the best instructional methods and materials we know how to give them. Nothing less will do.

John E. Slavin is a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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