From his fourth-floor office in schools headquarters, Robert Schiller has drawn up what he believes is a simple but dramatic blueprint for reforming Baltimore City's ailing public schools.
Reduce class sizes. Extend the school day. Build a curriculum. Make reading a priority.
But this week, the interim schools chief takes his plan to the proving grounds of public opinion -- where politics, private interests and the city's deepest fears about the direction of education reform could mangle his design.
"The next 10 days may be a war," said Carl Stokes, a member of the Baltimore City school board, which will begin debating Schiller's proposals at a public meeting Tuesday. "We may not have enough time to get everyone to buy in."
While many parent and community groups, teachers and principals are cheering the first signs that schools may indeed be changed this fall, others -- including some local power-brokers -- are balking at a key element of Schiller's plan: hiring hundreds of new teachers to reduce class sizes.
State schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick says the proposal misses the point. American Civil Liberties Union attorney Malissa Ruffner -- one of the negotiators of the city-state school reform partnership -- worries that the plan won't produce slam-dunk results.
And Robert C. Embry Jr., whose Abell Foundation funds curriculum experiments across the city, believes there are better ways to invest the $30 million in new state aid to city schools.
"I'm not so enamored of reducing class size because it bumps up against reality issues," said Grasmick. "I think [classroom] numbers become meaningless if you don't have the quality of instruction."
"That doesn't make any sense," countered Roger Lyons, president of the Baltimore Urban League. "Smaller class size is what the African-American community has been crying for in the system, and it's one of the things we always hoped would come out of this. There are other issues that may come up that might cause a fight, but I don't see why this one should."
Ultimately, Stokes and the eight other school board members must decide whether Schiller's proposals will become the heart of their first-year plan to boost student achievement in the district.
To do that, the board members must strike a delicate balance between the public they serve and the architects of the reorganization that empowered them.
Plan due Sept. 1
They have 30 days to get it right. A plan must be submitted to lawmakers by Sept. 1; children arrive on school doorsteps Sept. 3.
Grasmick, who is the state's voice in city school reform, said this week that reducing class size sounds nice, but stronger results would come from ensuring that all teachers have the skills and tools they need to teach -- particularly in reading.
"The decision has to be made by the board about what is acceptable reading instruction and teaching practice. What will every teacher have in his repertoire?" Grasmick said.
That opinion is shared by Robert Slavin, a researcher at Johns Hopkins' Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk.
"There's nothing inherently wrong with lowering class sizes, but that proposal misses the part that will make the most difference," Slavin said. "Until you change what happens between the teacher and the student, you won't really make a difference in student achievement."
Grasmick wants the board to consider reading programs that provide heavy teacher training. Embry believes he has the program: the Abell Foundation's Baltimore Curriculum Project, which introduced regimented, phonics-based reading instruction to six city schools.
Embry says it would be cheaper to hire teachers' aides to put another adult in elementary classrooms and give the school system time to develop its curriculum and train teachers long-term to deliver better instruction.
Ruffner, whose ACLU filed one of the three lawsuits that led to the city schools' reorganization, is also concerned about the idea of hiring new teachers on short notice.
Not enough details
There aren't enough details yet, she says, to ensure the money spent will yield tangible improvements.
"Everyone wants their child to be in a room where they are treated as an individual: Arguing against class size reduction is like arguing against apple pie," Ruffner said. "The problem is, we need to be sure that reducing class size will produce the $H measurable results that we want. It would be so nice to hope that he would be right about that."
Schiller's proposal would actually give each elementary principal the choice of hiring new teachers and dividing large classes or hiring specialists in reading and math to act as mentor teachers. He knows he can't find them overnight and that lesson plans must also be strengthened if reform is to take hold.
But Schiller believes strongly that reducing class size addresses a critical problem that teachers and principals in the district want solved.
It is achievable, he says, because he can muster the resources -- not only from the additional state money but also from other federal and private grant money the district already receives. It is crucial, because many of the other parts in his plan hinge on it.
"What people have to understand is that when you have 34, 38 kids in the classroom, and many of them with special needs, it mitigates anything else you do," Schiller said. "I've met with more than 60 principals in the district, and they understand this. Teachers understand it, too.
"I'm sure there will be lots of critics, because everyone has their idea of what they want to see done. But my goal is to put things on the table that I think will have the greatest return. I didn't put this together in a vacuum."
Broad backing for plan
Schiller will be backed in his plan by parents, teachers and
community leaders who have been calling for years for smaller class sizes.
Urban League President Lyons said he was surprised that anyone could argue with making a priority of the issue.
"How can we believe African-American children can learn in large classes, when we have proof right here in the district that they can't?" Lyons asked. "I find it hard to believe that now, when we have an opportunity to make a change, we'll stumble coming out of the gate."
Bernadette Forman, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, hailed Schiller's proposal: "The teachers would be able keep the attention of the children, and it would help with the discipline. The bottom line is the children. If it costs more money, so be it."
Nancy Neilson, principal of Gardenville Elementary School, could use more teachers, but "I have no where to put them. I am bursting at the seams."
She would rather hire teacher trainers and reading specialists. "Having more competent hands on deck affords a teacher the opportunity to add other people's strengths to their own."
Chris Pipho, executive director of the Education Commission of the States, which monitors education policy nationally, called Schiller's class reduction proposal "bold" but cautioned that it needs careful implementation.
There must be steely supervisors to ensure that teachers do more, not less, when classes get smaller: "You should be able to do things better, and if you still hand out dittoed work sheets instead of giving individual attention, it's not working."
The plan should be accompanied by specific, measurable targets, Pipho said: By how much do you expect reading to improve?
"I would say you should have some benchmarks so later you can say, 'Gee it did make a difference. Or it didn't.' "
Pub Date: 7/27/97