School policy is confused


THE BOARD of the Baltimore City public school system rightly wants to end "social promotion" of low-achieving students. Students should not be promoted from grade to grade if they do not meet high performance standards. But the board is going about trying to do the right thing in the wrong way.

The board took a series of muddled steps, in the waning days of the school year, to link promotion of second- and fourth-graders this year to higher academic standards in reading and to attendance at summer school. The board wants to speed up the process of ending social promotions.

But these actions are unfair to students and parents and weaken the foundation of an effective, sustained program to end social promotions.

First, the board flagrantly violated its own policy, adopted last year, that requires higher promotion standards to be preceded by notices to parents and students and interventions for students at risk of retention beginning at the start of the school year. The board based it policy on the recommendations of a task force of school staff and community representatives that sought to avoid mistakes made by other urban districts.

The task force recognized that neither social promotion nor retention boosts student achievement. The only policy that works is one that assures timely interventions that enable students to achieve grade-level performance. Thus, the board policy requires notices and interventions that are safeguards of fairness and adequate opportunity for promotion.

For example, the board policy mandates notices to parents, at the start of the school year, about the promotion standards to be used at year's end. In addition, the policy requires further notices to parents with each regular report card if their child is at risk of retention. City administrators also promised "individual intervention plans" for students at risk of retention.

The school system followed none of these steps. In its well-meaning but ill-advised hurry-up approach, the board ignored its own policy. Worse, the board broke its promises to parents and denied students the safeguards in the policy.

The board's second major error is in its failure to develop a clear and coherent alternative to its current policy. As reported in The Sun, parents, teachers and principals are bewildered -- as well as angered -- by conflicting and vague directives.

The promotion policy greatly impacts most city students. Therefore, it is particularly important that the policy be clearly designed, understood and implemented consistently across all schools.

Yet, the opposite is happening. Recent directives have been hastily improvised without any public discussion at the end of the school year. Uncertainties are rampant, such as the precise academic standards for promotion and what additional assistance, if any, will be given next year to retained students.

City administrators now say that individual principals and schools should be "lenient" in promoting students who don't meet the standards. However, this vague looseness is just what the city task force and board policy sought to avoid.

Loose and lenient discretion leads to inconsistent practices and sends the wrong message about even-handed enforcement of higher standards. School-by-school interpretations and actions are certain to vary, causing widespread unfairness.

A third area of concern is that the board altered its policy without any public discussion or action. This violates state law governing open meetings and public decision-making by school boards.

For all of these reasons the board should immediately reconsider its recent directives. The two most active groups of city parents and community organizations -- the Parent and Community Advisory Board and the Baltimore Education Network -- have urged such action.

Summer school should proceed as planned. But the attempt to institute, at the very last moment in the school year, a new promotion standard -- in violation of the board's own policy and without proper year-long notice and support for students and parents -- should cease.

The city school system, under the board's leadership, is making impressive gains, as recent rising test scores show. Still, far fewer than 50 percent of students perform at grade level, and the hardest part of reform lies ahead.

For continuous progress, social promotions must end, but in a way that guarantees students adequate notice and opportunity to meet higher standards and to avoid retention. At the same time, the board must restore its credibility with parents.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant and Catherine Brennan is education director, Advocates for Children and Youth.

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