Rejuvenating our schools


A triumphant feeling had barely faded when the staff at Baltimore's North Bend Elementary School was forced to confront its new status as a failing school.

In November, North Bend had been feted by the state's Department of Education for realizing significant gains in student achievement due to the school's performance on the May 1997 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test. Just six weeks later, however, it found itself among the state's pariahs because of the results its students achieved on the May 1998 MSPAP.

North Bend was declared "reconstitution-eligible," the term the state uses for schools with low performance that are ripe for state takeover if they do not improve.

If North Bend's uneven performance on the MSPAP had been unique, then this occurrence would be just an interesting anomaly on the road to meaningful school reform. But the fact that other schools with high levels of poverty have experienced similar ups and downs -- Canton Middle and Furman Templeton Elementary in Baltimore come to mind -- points out the absurdity of the state's system of rewards and punishment for schools (indeed school systems) that serve predominantly poor children.

If a school can attain star status one year -- then be among the dregs the next -- one might begin to question the validity of the process that identifies low-performing schools based almost exclusively on the results of the MSPAP.

Poverty and achievement

It will come as no surprise to anyone that there is a pretty clear relationship between low academic achievement and high poverty -- and vice versa.

This principle was behind the famous remark attributed to consumer advocate Ralph Nader: If you know a student's family income, you can predict with reasonable certainty her SAT score.

That being said, however, it is legitimate to question whether these patterns must exist in perpetuity. And there is every reason for the state to do everything in its power to ensure all schools perform at their highest level through a thoughtful allocation of carrots and sticks.

Solving problems

Baltimore is not likely to realize a dramatic reduction in poverty levels in the foreseeable future. So it behooves our educational and political leadership to hold out high hopes in attempting to improve the educational attainment of our poorest children.

And we should gratefully accept the fact that the state -- the entity with the power and responsibility for assuring an educated citizenry -- needs broad authority to make significant demands on those actually providing student instruction.

Yet the crazy quilt of "reconstitution eligibility" currently in place has almost no effect on schooling -- beyond undercutting what little morale accrues to the difficult job of teaching children whose lives cannot be imagined by many of the bureaucrats and politicians who dream up these accountability schemes.

The overwhelming majority of Maryland's high-poverty schools consistently post dismal pass rates on MSPAP ranging from the single digits to around 30 percent. So it makes little sense to saddle a certain group of these schools with a highly negative label, while leaving the rest unscathed.

Dreaded list

Should going up a few points on a single assessment be a cause for celebration? And should falling a few points on that same test trigger the scarlet "reconstitution eligibility" distinction?

Of course not. In place of the draconian blacklisting, I suggest that the state adopt a "rejuvenation-eligibility" status. Under such a system, schools that fail to demonstrate a reasonable level of performance -- say, sustained 45th-percentile scores in reading and math on a nationally normed standardized test -- would be eligible for rejuvenation.

Such schools could receive a financial allowance that would enable them to pursue a partnership with a local college or private school or to select the nationally recognized "whole school" reform model of their choice -- Johns Hopkins' Success For All and Temple University's Community For Learners are two such programs with proven track records that have expressed interest.

Since almost all of Baltimore's elementary and middle schools would be "rejuvenation eligible" under these guidelines, it would offer a great opportunity to see which programs improved academic performance over time. If after five years or so a school failed to make significant progress using a particular model, then the state could take it over.

This program of academic support could be enhanced through policies that recognize that the sustained educational improvement in schools serving disadvantaged children will require the involvement of the larger community. Providing businesses with substantial tax credits for financial and other support to a particular school over three years, at a minimum, is one way the legislature could become productively involved.

The power of these incentives could be augmented by linking the amount of the credit to student performance. Tax breaks could also be given to individuals who agreed to tutor or mentor students attending "rejuvenation-eligible" schools.

Maryland needs a school-reform model that supports, not stigmatizes. Let's rejuvenate our schools and leave the reconstitution for the orange juice.

Craig Schulze is an instructional resource coordinator with Baltimore public schools.

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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