City fails reform test

Fewer than half of teachers meet federal standards
sun reporter
Originally published January 26, 2006


Only 42 percent of Baltimore's classroom teachers are considered "highly qualified" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, according to a report presented to the state school board yesterday.

By comparison, 78 percent of teachers in Baltimore County and 84 percent of teachers in Anne Arundel County meet the criteria, which require teachers to be certified and show expertise in the subjects they teach.

The data about Baltimore teachers were part of a report from state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick showing that the city school system has failed to meet key provisions of a reform plan set by the state in 2003 in response to perpetually low test scores.

Under the reform plan, the school system committed to having all its teachers highly qualified by the current school year, a year earlier than No Child Left Behind requires.

In addition to falling short of that obligation, Grasmick said, the system failed to demonstrate that it is teaching students the state standards they must know to pass annual standardized tests.

Grasmick said yesterday that she will propose to the state board in March further "corrective actions" for the city schools to improve student performance. She declined to elaborate on what those actions might be.

No Child Left Behind requires states to impose structural reforms on school systems that fail to show adequate progress on standardized tests. Baltimore is the only school system in Maryland to receive such intervention.

The law requires restructuring individual schools that continually post low test scores, which can involve replacing an entire school staff. But No Child Left Behind does not include any sanctions more severe than corrective action for failing school systems.

"It is one of the weaknesses of the law," Grasmick said, responding to questions from board members about what the state can do if the school system doesn't make ordered reforms. "It didn't establish a bottom line."

In response to the findings, Baltimore schools officials outlined steps they are taking to increase the number of classrooms staffed with highly qualified teachers - from foreign recruitment to holding classes to prepare existing teachers for passing the state certification test. Urban school systems nationwide are struggling to meet the law's "highly qualified" teacher provision.

George Duque, a manager in the city schools' human resources department, said 66 percent of the city's classroom teachers are fully certified. However, not all of them are considered highly qualified, in large part because not all of them are teaching in their subject area of expertise. For example, a certified English teacher who is teaching science does not count as highly qualified.

System officials said they had made progress reducing the number of classrooms that are staffed by substitutes. The number of teacher vacancies decreased from 140 in the fall to 40 in December, the officials said.

Officials also said they are working to make curricula more rigorous and in line with state standards.

State school board members criticized the city system's use of the Studio Course language arts curriculum in middle schools this year. Grasmick said that curriculum, the focus of recent Sun articles, does not appear aligned with state standards.

City schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland, who convened a panel to review the Studio Course curriculum in response to the Sun articles, said the panel is expected to issue preliminary findings by the end of the month.

State board member Calvin D. Disney said he is concerned "that this be a fair evaluation." Copeland assured him it would be.

Studio uses teen magazines and places grammar on the back burner to spark pupils' interest in reading and writing. The Sun found that teachers were not properly trained in the curriculum before school started, and several classrooms do not have the necessary materials. Studio has a track record in only one other city, Denver, where test scores have remained flat.

Frank DeStefano, the system's deputy chief academic officer, told state board members not to judge Studio based on the Sun articles, which he called "highly inaccurate."

DeStefano detailed the system's various initiatives in reforming middle and high schools, but Grasmick said there appears to be a "huge void" between the things he described and what's communicated to principals and teachers and what's actually happening in schools.

State board members grilled city school officials on a host of other issues yesterday, as the school system presented an annual report of its finances and student performance. They attacked system officials for saying their high school graduation rates for black and Hispanic students exceed national averages. The city's four-year graduation rate for African-American students is 58.7 percent, compared with a national average of about 50 percent.

"Where African-Americans are in this country is abysmal," said board Vice President Dunbar Brooks, who is black. " So even if you're over the national average, it still doesn't sit well with me. Basically, 42 percent of kids that look like me are disappearing off the radar."

The city's graduation rate for Hispanics is 83.6 percent, but Hispanics make up only 2 percent of the system's enrollment. African-Americans make up 89 percent.