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Breaking down school problems Challenges: Higher- education funding, MSPAP reconstitution and the middle-school malaise are problem areas that public officials must contend with as the new year begins.


WHAT NEEDS FIXIN' in 1999 (and how it got broke):

Higher education funding: The 11 presidents of the University System of Maryland complained for years about red tape and puny budgets. Now a task force headed by retired Naval Academy Superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson has recommended giving them more autonomy and more money.

That will be welcome, and it might lead to a truce in the war that saw Towson University President Hoke Smith snubbed by system officials because he had the gall to suggest that flying solo was superior to a place well back in the flock.

The Larson task force, however, only began to address the real problem, which is that none of the schools has been able to keep up with peers in states such as North Carolina and California. This is not a glamour contest. It means that Maryland schools can't compete for the nation's best professors, researchers and students.

The University of Maryland flagship in College Park, for example, needs $164 million in additional funding over three years to close the gap with its "aspirational peers." Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the legislature will have to spend generously if College Park, UMBC, UMAB and the others are to compete with Chapel Hill, Berkeley and UCLA.

"Those are the models we offer the state of Maryland," says C. D. "Dan" Mote, the new College Park president. "In many ways, the future of the state depends on our willingness and our commitment to achieve those goals."

How it got broke: Decades of inadequate funding exacerbated by the recession of the early 1990s. Maryland lacks a culture that values public higher education the way North Carolina does.

We've got Johns Hopkins, you say. But they have Duke.

MSPAP reconstitution: Before the state released the 1998 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program scores this month, the public-interest group Advocates for Children and Youth issued a report critical of how the state handles "reconstitution" -- the annual identification and prodding of chronically poor schools.

The advocates' report got a little attention, and a follow-up analysis of 1998 scores by the same group arrived during the holidays as quietly as Santa Claus. Both the report and the analysis noted that, with rare exceptions, the schools declared "reconstitution eligible" are making little or no progress on state measures of student achievement. Because almost all 89 schools identified since 1994 are in Baltimore City, the implications are dire.

The advocacy organization recommended that the state set "reasonable and meaningful" goals for improvement among the failing schools; that it help those schools identify and put in place programs that have proved effective in comparable schools elsewhere; and that it "require low-performing schools to address staffing and instructional issues as a condition of avoiding immediate state takeover."

You might think that state education officials have been doing this, but that's not the case. As the advocates' report noted, the state doesn't insist that the reform efforts are supported by research or that they're likely to improve achievement.

How it got broke: Baltimore City schools are so far behind the rest of Maryland schools on MSPAP that the state finds it nearly impossible to monitor all of the city's failing schools. It lacks the staff to police individual school-improvement plans, so it has let poorly conceived recovery plans slip by without enforcement.

The state has been reluctant to use the stick -- to take over a school. City schools that have been on the failure list for three or four years are well aware that the only penalty for perennially poor performance is public opprobrium. What else is new?

Advocates for Children and Youth suggested that the state "prepare to assert direct oversight over one or more chronically low-performing schools" -- that is, take over a school or two, and see what happens.

It would be a fascinating experiment. Could the state do any better than the city? The state is, after all, a "partner" in the new city schools operation.

Middle schools: The eighth-grade slump in reading scores in MSPAP isn't exclusive to reading. The middle school malaise extends across the academic board, from the three R's to science and social studies.

Recent reports blame the problem in large part on poorly prepared teachers. An example: Of the 11 Southern states (not including Maryland) that use a national test to screen teacher candidates in reading and writing, only three set a passing score above the 25th percentile.

Too many students leave middle school unprepared for high school work. Too many end up in remedial or watered-down courses in ninth grade.

The challenge is to raise standards for entry into middle-school teaching -- while a severe shortage of teachers looms. It will not be easy.

How it got broke: Neglect and panic. Schools of education haven't done enough to ensure that middle-school teachers know the content of their subject matter when they enter the classroom. Because these teachers often are assigned on the basis of convenience or the need to "cover classrooms," many are not prepared to teach effectively.

Pub Date: 12/30/98

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