Addressing SAT achievement gapThe Sun's article "Tests...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Addressing SAT achievement gap

The Sun's article "Tests show advances in reading" (Aug. 19) suggests that Baltimore County's school system has presented test scores that prove it has begun to close the academic achievements gap among cultural groups.

But caution is in order before school districts around the state beat a path to Baltimore County's door to learn how to close the academic achievement gap.

Ten years ago, statistics indicated that African-American students started school on par with their white counterparts of the same socioeconomic level and were happier to be in school and less likely to be absent.

At the third grade level, an achievement gap became evident and the gap widened each year of the black child's schooling.

One does not have to be a research fellow to figure that these students came from sufficiently nurturing homes that they were able to ward off the negative effects of schooling for three years.

However, one of the responses to this gap was to try to get to these students early, with more preschool programs, and fix them so that they are ready for school.

I personally warned a group of Baltimore County administrators that this would not net them their anticipated gains.

And what has happened? The achievement gap now exists in the lower grades.

Thus, Baltimore County has published results of one program that is supposedly solving the problem that another program may have created.

Do not get excited by these test figures for young children. If you give me any child -- black or white, rich or poor -- I can teach that child in a few months enough to pass first- through third-grade reading and math tests.

There simply is not much to be tested at that level.

The real test of gap reduction is for Baltimore County to show us data by race on MSPAP and SAT scores, high school graduation, college, honor roll and honor society participation. Those are the things that matter.

History has taught us that black children being on equal footing in grades one through three does not prevent an increasing achievement gap in later years.

African-American children do not need special programs. There is nothing wrong with them. They need to be treated like human beings. Their homes, parents and culture need to be respected and included in their schooling.

More important, they need to be taught by people who value them and believe in their potential.

A few school systems have taken this achievement gap quite seriously and are quietly implementing approaches that will fix the problem. They are not in it for the publicity, political posturing of fanfare. But they are deeply in it.

When the normal data collection system reflects the success of their efforts, they will lead by example. Meanwhile, they send up no fake balloons.

Baltimore County is deserving of no credit, no praise -- not now, not yet.

Agnes Green, Maryland Line

The writer is a diversity consultant and a retired education administrator.

Breakfast bill worth paying

In May, Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed a bill that established the Universal Breakfast Pilot Program. This program seeks to assure that hungry schoolchildren will get a good breakfast, without labeling themselves as "poor children."

When implemented, the program will provide breakfast in the classroom to all children, regardless of family income. Schools participating in the breakfast program must have at least 40 percent of their students eligible for the federally funded free and reduced price meals.

Nonpublic schools may participate in the program, if they are eligible to participate in the federal meals program.

The cost of implementing the program is approximately $2,000 to $35,000 per school per year, depending on the number of students eligible for free and reduced price meals.

The problem is that no money was included in the budget for fiscal year 2000 for implementation of the program. I will work to see that such funding for the next fiscal year is allocated during the General Assembly's 2000 session.

The traditional school breakfast program reaches only a fraction of children who are eligible. On average, only 30 percent of students eligible for free meals and 11 percent of those eligible for reduced price meals participate in Maryland's existing school Breakfast Program in Maryland.

By offering breakfast to all children, the program removes the stigma associated with being singled out as poor. Many children would rather go hungry than be seen as poor by their classmates.

There is no other way to explain the statistics showing a sharp increase in those eating breakfast when it is offered to all in the classroom. For two years, the Abell Foundation and Harvard Medical School have studied privately funded pilot programs in Maryland that are similar to the in-classroom Universal Breakfast Pilot Program.

The results of the Maryland study confirm studies in other states and show clearly that the percentage of children having breakfast rose from 18 to 85 percent; disciplinary incidents decreased 50 percent; tardiness went down by 75 percent; visits to the school nurse decreased 30 percent; and math and reading scores improved.

The research also shows that teachers who have breakfast in their classrooms report higher job satisfaction in surveys than teachers in schools where breakfast is served in the cafeteria.

The results of the research leave no room for doubt: The classroom breakfast program is a win-win proposition that benefits children and their teachers.

The slogan of the program is " 'Fuel to Burn . . . Ready to Learn."

It is imperative that funding is obtained during the upcoming legislative session to get this thoroughly worthwhile and effective program off the ground.

Ann Marie Doory, Baltimore

The writer represents the 43rd Legislative District in the Maryland House of Delegates.

Editorial unfairly puts teachers, union in bad light

My blood pressure went up after reading The Sun's editorial concerning teachers short-changing the Baltimore City public schools ("Union must recognize school system's needs," Aug. 26). It amazed me how events as portrayed in the news can be so different from eyewitness accounts.

As an eyewitness to the city schools for the past 25 years, I think The Sun has wrongly put the teachers and their union in a bad light.

It is very obvious to me that both management and teachers in the city schools are working very hard to improve academic performance. But there are times when teachers who are giving their all feel used and abused by the system.

Management makes the decisions about how schools are run and where the money is spent. The teachers must implement those decisions -- many times without sufficient manpower, resources and time.

Some poor management decisions set the teachers up for failure, Many educational follies have been instituted in the name of "helping students," only to have students and teachers fall victims.

The good news is that the administration is trying to put into place what the union and its teachers have been asking for over the past 25 years: books, supplies, mentoring programs, good teachers, effective principals and smaller class sizes.

Teachers have said it over and over again: Go with what works -- good teachers, good principals and manageable class sizes.

Teachers work an exceptional amount of overtime and spend quite a bit of their own money to supplement their programs, so that their students can be successful.

So I certainly will not condemn them when they protest about working longer without pay and having their health care benefits changed.

Who will benefit from the changes proposed in health care, from longer days without more pay and more duties that take teachers away from teaching?

The teachers know the answer, just as they have known the answers as to what works in education.

I stand behind my union. And I will accept management's final decisions on work rules and benefits.

But before The Sun condemns the union, it need to look at what happens when management starts to listen to it.

This administration is bringing some improvement to city schools and, with altruism from management, we will see more improvement. And the teachers will respond.

Meanwhile, maybe one day The Sun will get it right.

J. W. Knox, Baltimore

The writer is a special education administrator in the Baltimore City Public Schools.

Drug education, taught by a friend

Since 1983, the respected and well-organized Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (Project DARE) has brought police officers into three-quarters of the nation's schools for weekly classes. But parents and teachers have recently been chagrined to learn that the program doesn't seem to be working.

A study published Friday in a journal of the American Psychiatric Association, found that DARE failed to produce quantifiable long-term reductions in drug use.

"We cannot say that DARE was not efficacious," cautions Donald Lynma, the University of Kentucky professor who wrote the study. "But . . . it was no more efficacious than whatever the teachers had been doing previously."

This suggests it might be time to revisit an equally rigorous study conducted in 1993 with children in a different program.

These kids met less than once a week with an adult, who wasn't a licensed police officer. The program didn't take place in schools. It didn't include an explicit drug resistance curriculum.

But in a single year, first-time drug use was 46 percent lower among kids in this program than among kids on its waiting list.

Public/Private Ventures, a nationally recognized policy research firm, conducted this study. The program that they found could cut first-time drug use almost in half was Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

The study also showed that children in this program were one-third less likely to act violently. They skipped fewer days of school, showed gains in academic performance and got along better with family and peers.

Why aren't we supporting a program that studies say does work? Maybe we're just not accustomed to thinking of mentoring as a powerful social program.

Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and their Little Brothers and Little Sisters don't talk about drugs in a classroom, but they keep busy. They go out for ice cream, go to movies and baseball games and tell each other jokes.

The two studies hold a lesson about the difference between aiming a program at a problem and aiming it at a child: Police officers telling kids about drugs doesn't seem to work; but regular folks, simply sharing their friendship with kids, works better than most people realize.

Single-issue programs try to get kids to "say no" and have little to show for it. Meanwhile, holistic programs provide role models who help kids grow into confident, competent and caring individuals, with impressive results.

Admittedly, a first-rate mentoring program comes with a serious price tag. The 1993 study considers Big Brothers Big Sisters' professional support -- paid case managers who recruit, screen, match and guide the volunteers and children -- "critical" in achieving such dramatic success. Providing such resources costs around $1,500 per year, per child.

Bringing Big Brothers and Big Sisters (BBBS) to more kids would cost not only money but time. Volunteers are asked to meet with their Little Brother or Sister at least twice a month for a year. Across the country, BBBS affiliates struggle to meet the demand for mentors.

At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Maryland, for example, which supports 268 matches in Baltimore City and the five surrounding counties, more than 400 children are waiting to be matched with a volunteer. (To help, call 410-243-4000.)

Putting a caring adult in the life of every child who could benefit is a tall order. Finding enough Big Brothers and Big Sisters to bring an entire community the benefits of mentoring would require a tremendous effort.

But I think we'd be able to handle it. After all, we've spent years footing the bill for an anti-drug program that researchers are now saying doesn't work.

Robin A. Tomechko, Baltimore

The writer is a Big Sister and president and chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Maryland.

For parents and students, a lesson in freshamn year 101

As we approach the end of summer, many American families face what can be a very difficult breakup. No, there hasn't been a dramatic increase in the divorce rate, but universities and colleges are enrolling thousands of freshmen -- perhaps even your son or daughter.

As I welcome my 31st freshmen class to campus, I've learned that students and parents look forward to college with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but most are woefully unprepared for what lies ahead.

Colleges and universities have studied the impact of the transition to college on their students and most have designed elaborate support programs to help young people deal with it.

However, little is known about the impact on parents and even less is done to help them understand what we do know about this transitional phase of family life.

The key concern for most parents is deciding how intrusive they should now be in their son or daughter's life. Contrary to popular belief, less is not more. If in doubt, err on the side of becoming more involved.

This doesn't mean you should monitor their bedtime, eating habits or choice of friends. But be aware that your support is needed to help a freshman adjust to the academic rigors of university life.

University students are not monitored or evaluated as frequently as they were in high school. They have fewer required homework assignments and more flexibility about attending classes.

Gentle reminders, couched as engaging questions, will help students realize that they need to keep up with assignments, even when they are not evaluated, study with others and go beyond their day-to-day assignments to be successful.

While nagging is not recommended, try to help your son or daughter realize that because evaluations are infrequent, each one counts more. Your genuine interest in what they are studying may also lead to insights about potential problems.

Phone calls from parents, just to say hello, are also helpful, especially around the fourth week of the fall semester. This is the time when the euphoria of being away from home wears off, the first round of exams is looming and the bloom of some early relationships begins to fade.

You may be surprised at how much you are missed at this point. If time and distance permit, try to schedule a weekend home visit.

When it comes to coping with the transition from high school to college, parents are as important as the support services we can provide students.

Although your heart may be aching, your ability to ask questions and offer nonjudgmental advice can not only provide a safe environment for students to explore their choices, but will likely strengthen the bond between you and your child.

You will also be helping him or her to be a successful student.

Charles Woolston, Baltimore

The writer is vice provost at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Question of the month

Who are you voting for in the Sept. 14 primary? Have you changed your mind about candidates? If so, what swayed you?

We are looking for 300 words or less on this topic. Your letter will be edited. The deadline is Friday. Letters should included your name and address, along with a day and evening telephone number. Fax us: 410-332-6977; e-mail us: letters@baltsun.com. Pub Date: 9/04/99

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