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A "New" Plan for Baltimore City Schools

I’m fed up with people who know nothing about education making the claim that small class sizes and after-school tutoring–-or renaming the superintendent "czar"–-will fix our schools.
As always happens around September, there’s a lot of talk about schools and education. Because there is an election coming up, we’re facing more than the average barrage of comments.

Every ad for every candidate tells how s/he will make college more affordable or make K-12s more successful. For instance, on the Fox morning news on August 15, City Councilman Keifer Mitchell laid out his plan for Baltimore City Schools. He wants to take them out of the hands of the State–-to which I’m not opposed–-but his brilliant plan appears to have only one central element: create the position of "school Czar," some all-powerful king of schools who will somehow force the schools into being good.

Mitchell says this is thinking outside the box. Outside the box? Hardly. Creating one, all-powerful administrative position only perpetuates the administration-down thinking that has taken this school system down to where it is now.

You want to think outside the box? Here you go... take my hand... we’ll step out there together.
  1. Tell not only the State, but the Feds, to take their money and shove it. We can do more with less if we can just take back control of our schools.

  2. Fire every administrator who has to do with administering the state program or the federal monies. (That ought to cut the administrative budget by at least half and free up some funds.)

  3. Do NOT hire a czar, a superintendent or CEO. Instead, hire a coordinator. A coordinator would have no decision-making power, but would be the central administrator who would make sure school principals have what they need to get the job done.

  4. Give principals control over their curricula, their teachers and their students. Put the power of the schools back in the hands of the schools. Get rid of centralized teacher hiring; make it a clearing house only for substitute teachers and centralized purchasing. Allow each school to choose and hire the teachers it wants. Though schools appear to be doing that now, the process is deceptive because principals are told what teacher positions they may hire for by North Avenue. Budgets are also controlled by North Avenue. Forget that. Make budgets dependent on the number of students in the school, period.

  5. Except for high schools, which should all be city-wide, go back to neighborhood schools--schools that are so close, kids can walk there. (Save money on busing.)

  6. Go back to unisex high schools; institute unisex middle schools. It’s surprising how well boys perform if they don’t have girls to show off for. And it’s surprising how well girls can do, if they don’t have boys around to distract them.

  7. Give teachers control over their classrooms: how they teach and student behavior. If a teacher says a student is disrupting a class and needs to be put out, well then: put him/her out. The student is then only allowed back in with some big mea culpas, a long essay on why he/she will not misbehave again, and permission of the teacher.

  8. Any student who is not willing to behave is "3 strikes and you’re out". Three disciplinary actions and the student is expelled. Free public education is a privilege that is earned. Additionally, any student who does not meet the passing criteria is held back. No more social promotion. And, those who exceed expectations may be skipped.

  9. For students who are too old for the grade level they’re in, create special classes, in which the computer is the main instructor, with a teacher in the classroom as proctor, question answerer, and discussion leader. When students’ skills reach their age/grade level, they may return to the classroom. And, no more summer school for kids who don’t work and try during the year.

  10. Reinstate a rigorous curriculum. Many kids who act up are among the brightest students in the group; they are bored. Make students work; make them understand that they are responsible for learning.

  11. Since they’ll be working harder, give kids back the things that make school bearable: namely, gym, music, art, and an hour for lunch. That hour for lunch also promotes better eating and digestion. Encourage before-school and after-school play on elementary school playgrounds, and create less-hyper, thinner children.

  12. Go back to grouping kids according to performance ability. It is difficult for both teacher and learner when the entire class is mis-matched. The smart students get bored waiting for the slow ones to catch up; the slow ones lose confidence in themselves. And the teacher is forced to tilt the curriculum toward the mediocre. To my knowledge, Poly and Western the only remaining city public high schools that offer A courses.

  13. Return to the teacher mentoring system used before 1972, in which new teachers were taken under the wing of the department chair, given the best classes–-who can learn from anyone–-and taught how to teach before they had to learn how to discipline. Ever since out-of-towner Roland Patterson messed with our schools, new teachers have been given the discipline problems, in a sink or swim model of teacher orientation. It’s a main reason why we lose so many teachers in their first years of teaching.
Some of you will say this is not "outside the box" either. Well, you’re probably right. It’s the old box; the one that worked.
Some of you will say this is not "outside the box" either. Well, you’re probably right. It’s the old box; the one that worked.

In 1963, Baltimore City’s school system was said to be the third best in the country. I grew up in that system (1951 to 1964). At that time, students from other counties actually paid tuition to the City to attend. Friends of mine in the "A" course at Eastern went on to scholarships at places like Smith, Wellesley and McCoy College (the then-women’s college at Johns Hopkins University). Most students in the academic curriculum (even those of us in the "B" course) went on to higher education, and girls who graduated from the commercial curriculum went on to good-paying jobs.

I’m fed up with people who know nothing about education making the claim that small class sizes and after-school tutoring–-or renaming the superintendent "czar"–-will fix our schools. Small classes are nice, but make no difference if the student body is well-disciplined and a teacher is not forced into teaching six classes in a semester. After-school tutoring is helpful if you want it; but is detrimental if you’re forced into it. And top-down thinking only creates politics, not good education.

You want good schools? Stop micro-managing the teachers and mollycoddling the students.
Lynda Lambert, a Baltimore-based college English and freelance writer, writes frequently for this newspaper.

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This story was published on August 16, 2006.