RAISING THE BAR:

State To Toughen Teacher Training, Outsource Schools

by Alice Cherbonnier
       ANYONE who glanced at the third grade reading scores for the city’s public schools, released last month, has to be disheartened about the future. Hardly any schools had even half the students scoring satisfactorily at their grade level; most scored far under that, some even at five percent or below.

       After a while, the excuses—too many students are underprivileged, the schools don’t have enough money, students change schools too frequently, and so on—wear thin. Clearly, it is well past time for radical change. Recognizing this, the Maryland State Department of Education, which has already taken charge of some of the state’s substandard schools, plans to turn over the management of schools that have not improved to third party providers, beginning as early as this month.

       Several city schools—including Northern, Patterson, and Douglass high schools—are eligible for private take-over, in a process MSDE officials are calling “full reconstitution.”

       Ron Peiffer, assistant superintendent of MSDE’s school and community outreach office, says, “This is as close as we come to de-certifying schools. It’s even conceivable we could close a school and send students elsewhere.”

       The private management of troubled schools would be by foundations or institutes under contract with MSDE. “We issued a request for information to see what they did. About a dozen said they’d be interested. Then we issued a request for proposals, and the responses are coming in,” said Mr. Peiffer. He said it was not yet known if the first private take-overs would be at the elementary, middle school, or high school level. In any event, the MSDE will require payment to the private subcontractors to come from the affected school districts’ budgets, on a per-pupil allotment basis.

       In addition to taking what some might see as draconian measures to shore up failing schools, the MSDE approved new content standards for all schools in July, with implementation to begin next September.

       “There are practice items and sample items for MSPAP [the state’s achievement test] online at msde.state.md.us,” said Mr. Peiffer. “Use the button on ‘school improvement K-twelve’.”

       MSDE has also recognized that teacher preparedness has not been what it should be. In 1985, the State began requiring that a would-be teacher present a score of 50th percentile or higher on the National Teacher’s Exam (NTE)—and allowed its districts to waive that requirement for special education teachers. From 1968 to 1985, there was no NTE score requirement in the Baltimore City Public Schools.

       The NTE has two parts; the first assesses basic knowledge, and the second examines knowledge about education. (It is not a particularly difficult test; a few years ago, a Chronicle intern—a senior from Gilman School—took the test and scored in the 77th percentile.)

       The MSDE has decided to scrap the NTE altogether in favor of a more substantive examination process: Praxis I and Praxis II. Beginning in June of this year, students Maryland colleges indicating an intention to teach will be required to take the Praxis I test at the end of the sophomore year. Like the NTE’s first part, Praxis I measures basic skills. Students who do not achieve satisfactory scores, even after remediation and re-testing, will be advised they cannot major in education.

       Praxis II, which measures knowledge of the education process, will be administered in the students’ senior year.

       “In many ways, our requirements [for new teachers] are the highest in the nation at this time,” said Mr. Peiffer. “Virginia is also posting high standards.”

       The responsibility for preparing qualified teachers, of course, lies with Maryland’s colleges and universities, and now the MSDE intends to hold them more responsible. “The U.S. Department of Education requires data on [teacher exam] pass rates from universities,” explained Mr. Peiffer. “We want minority candidates, but we also want quality.”

       Like everything else that involves taxpayer money, the Maryland legislature has over the years influenced education policy. For many years, “separate but equal” prevailed, with resulting inequities. Then, after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, there were funding disparities in the various school districts to contend with, although, according to Mr. Peiffer, Maryland’s disparity among districts is much better than in many other states, currently ranking ninth in the nation.

       For many years, said Mr. Peiffer, “We didn’t really hold poor districts to the same standards. But the legislature and the public got tired of this, and wanted accountability.”

       In 1989, the 35-page so-called Sondheim report, named for Walter Sondheim, chair of a commission that investigated the state of the State’s schools, created a blueprint for the changes that are now being implemented. “It was simple and revolutionary,” Mr. Peiffer said of the report. “It required full disclosure to the public about how individual schools are doing. And when they do well, we reward them, and when they do not, we intervene.”

       Intervention by the MSDE in the State’s 24 school districts has been made possible, in part, by the fact that the State controls a great deal of funding for the public schools. For example, the cost of educating each student in the Baltimore City Public Schools is currently subsidized by $2,840 from the State and about $800 more from the federal government.

       Currently, public schools in Maryland “are certified by virtue of being open for business,” said Mr. Peiffer. There is no formal accreditation process, as there is for private schools. Some school districts in Maryland, as well as Baltimore City College, have voluntarily undergone the certification process.

       By law, public schools must have curriculum and guidelines for student conduct and so on, but there is no central place in MSDE offices where the public can examine and compare curriculum guides and other information from the various districts. “Our local school districts are pretty big,” explained Mr. Peiffer. “We don’t get to a high level of detail.”

       MSDE officials do not actually examine the required documents. Instead, superintendents of the 24 school districts provide certification letters to the effect that such documents exist. According to Mr. Peiffer, such letters carry legal weight, but he could not say if any superintendent had been subjected to legal action on the basis of false statements made to MSDE.

       Asked if MSDE had any requirements that Maryland’s public high schools offer such important extracurricular activities as student government associations and student-run newspapers, Mr. Peiffer replied, “We don’t get to that level of specificity.”

       The Chronicle surveyed a dozen public high schools in Baltimore City to learn if these activities were available to students. In most cases, it was unable to obtain definitive answers. Responses were vague or inadequate. One newspaper advisor, who asked not to be identified, said she would send a copy of her school’s newspaper to the Chronicle, but it never arrived. She did say her school had a student government, “but it’s not very organized.”

       Frustrated in the attempt to obtain this information, the Chronicle contacted Vanessa Pyatt, public relations director for the Baltimore City Public Schools, and asked her to provide the information. She said she would get back to the Chronicle during the week of December 13, but did not. The telephone was not being answered in her office later in the month.

       One faculty member, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested the lack of student governments or newspapers in high schools could be due to how principals allocate the extracurricular funds provided to them for disbursement under the “school-based management” system. Sports coaches, for example, might receive most of the available funding. There might be little or no money available to provide a stipend to teachers willing to advise a newspaper or student government.

       Aaron Pinchback, spokesperson for the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU), acknowledged that the union had sought additional pay for such advising, or else a reduced class load for the advisors. “This is more a case of administrators and [the school system] not wanting to emphasize these programs—not wanting to support these programs,” he said.

       When told teachers in private high schools typically advise student organizations as part of their job description, without extra pay, Mr. Pinchback said, “Possibly we might be willing to discuss revisiting the subject.”

       Sharon Norman, a spokesperson for the Baltimore County Board of Education, said teachers do receive additional stipends for advising such organizations. “Not all clubs get it,” she said. “You need to spend a certain number of hours” to qualify. Sometimes two teachers share the duties and split the stipend, she added. If the organization is part of a teaching assignment—if, for example, you’re a journalism teacher advising the paper—that is part of the job and not subject to extra pay.

       The county school system does not require that high schools offer particular extracurricular activities, Ms. Norman said, “but there is an expectation they will be offered; ‘require’ is not the word. We try to offer a comprehensive program. A lot is driven by student interest.”

       As the State’s public schools move into the new millennium, they face a shortage of teachers—now probably made more acute by the more stringent eligibility requirements being put in place. How will they cope with a smaller supply and greater demand?

       For one thing, they’re going to try to hire retired teachers. “It’s a new thing,” said Mr. Peiffer. “Teachers who are retired can come back without a ‘retirement cap’ penalty” on their Social Security.

       


Anyone who wants to know if a city high school offers a particular extracurricular activity should visit the school in person and ask to see a copy of the newspaper or yearbook, or attend a student government meeting—for example.


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This story was published on January 5, 2000.