THE NATIONAL Assessment of Educational Progress - "The Nation's Report Card" - recently took the pulse of nine of the nation's big urban school districts.
And found it stronger than many expect.
For years, big-city districts such as Baltimore have been assumed to be hopeless wastelands where students are far behind their peers nationally.
Not so, according to the NAEP study. Students in several of the cities in the study scored above the national average in standardized tests given last year. And look at this: African-American students in New York, Houston, Boston and Charlotte, N.C., scored above the national average in fourth-grade reading, while blacks in those cities, plus San Diego, scored above the average in fourth-grade math.
There were still some disaster areas, particularly the District of Columbia and Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest district behind New York. African-American and Hispanic students in the District were at the bottom of the list in math and reading. Hispanic children in New York scored about two years ahead of their counterparts in the District in fourth-grade reading.
But while it's useful to compare these districts with national averages, it's dangerous to compare them with each other. The study amounted to a snapshot and didn't take into account historical data or differences in wealth among the districts studied. For example, Charlotte (from which Anne Arundel County snatched its superintendent, Eric J. Smith, two years ago) is merged with surrounding Mecklenburg County, which has many affluent schools.
Still, some of the biggest and supposedly disastrous school systems in the United States apparently are holding their own. They include New York, Atlanta and Houston, where the "miracle" of former superintendent, now U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, has been tarnished by a scandal involving fraudulent reporting of high school graduation rates.
Baltimore was not in the study, but there's reason to expect city students would have done well. Educational reform (as opposed, alas, to financial reform) began here in earnest in the late 1990s, when last year's fourth-graders were in kindergarten or first grade and just learning their ABC's and 1-2-3's.
Special consideration for special education
In light of the fervent conversation in Maryland over the place of special-education students in statewide testing, it was good to see the state fared well in a national study conducted by Education Week, a newspaper of national school news.
The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to keep data on children with disabilities and, more important, to raise them to the same bar as "regular" students. Yet the disparity in performance between regular and special students is striking; it prompted the Maryland school board last month to rule tentatively that disabled students won't have to pass the four new state high school tests to earn a diploma.
Most teachers - 84 percent in a national poll conducted as part of the Education Week study - believe most special-education students shouldn't be expected to meet the same set of academic standards as other children their age. Nearly as many - 78 percent - think such students should be given alternative assessments, rather than the same tests as the other children.
There's a fundamental conflict here between the federal law and its stringent requirements - and what the special-ed teachers and many parents think.
Much is at stake. Fifteen percent of Baltimore City's elementary pupils are officially disabled, as are 13 percent of elementary pupils statewide. In all, 105,000 disabled students attend Maryland's public schools. If they constituted a district, they would be Maryland's fourth-largest, just behind Baltimore County.
Furloughing teachers need not cost students
If Baltimore teachers have to take furlough days because of the budget crisis, there are plenty of opportunities to build them in without sacrificing class time this year and in 2004-2005. After tomorrow's break for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there are six more closings and holidays, plus the April 5-12 spring break.
After the summer vacation, there's the teachers convention in mid-October, followed by Election Day, Christmas break and closings for professional development at a rate of about one per month.
Excluding the summer break, Baltimore has 30 days of paid closings and holidays this year, about average for a Maryland school district.