Baltimore Adopts Ambitious Plan Over Protests

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Baltimore--In the beginning, the city school board here had the notion that it ought to do more comprehensive planning for the future.

As the planning developed, the board wandered into a maelstrom.

And, in the end, the board is likely to find that it does not have the money to carry out many of the more ambitious ideas its first five-year plan contained.

But it may have learned something about communicating with the public.

Even as the 52-page document was receiving unanimous board approval this month, school-system security officers were escorting angry opponents of the plan out of the board's public meeting.

The protests--from the local teachers' union, some parents, and a few political activists--were a continuation of the strong opposition that the plan encountered in a series of public hearings earlier this fall.

The plan, almost a year and five previous draft versions in the making, calls for some critical changes in the operation of the 125,000-pupil system, including: inaugurating competency tests for new teachers, expanding pre-kindergarten classes, introducing the "mastery learning" system of instruction at all grade levels, and replacing junior highs with middle schools.

But it was the plan's emphasis on bringing the Baltimore schools into the computer age that stirred par-ents' fears, riled the teachers' union, and drew the fire of a political group. That particular goal was one that board members, who are not particularly comfortable conducting so much of their business in public, now admit they did a poor job of presenting.

The board wants to expand the use of computers in the school system to do four different kinds of tasks: to run the system's business operations more efficiently; to grade student tests and keep the students' records as they progress through the instructional goals in the "mastery learning" system; to teach students directly; and to train pupils for technological careers.

"Our goal," states a summary portion of the five-year plan, "is to help our students face, with knowledge and confidence, the world they will meet upon graduation."

The problem is that the world Baltimore students already meet in their schools itself fails to inspire confidence.

The school system faces a projected $9-million deficit in this school year's $328-million budget. And, for the first time in years, the board's budget request to the city for the next school year calls for operating the schools on less money.

The announcement of the new five-year plan last summer followed the layoff of about 900 Baltimore teachers and aides earlier this year. And it was presented at a time when school officials are mulling over whether they will have to send layoff notices to more of the system's teachers and aides.

It also came at a time when some teachers face shortages of such essentials as paper, when the system is far from providing a book for every student in every subject, and when some high-school classes are packed with 45 or more pupils and some elementary-school classes have 38 or so.

The teachers' union, preparing for the opening of its contract negotiations with the board later this month, reacted to news of the plan with charges that the board intended to "replace teachers with computers."

Some parents--concerned about the increased standardization of the curriculum implied by the mastery-learning system and other components of the plan--joined in the cry against "dehumanization." They also were dismayed that such basics as class size and texts were not addressed specifically in the plan.

And then the local chapter of the National Anti-Drug Coalition, a privately-funded organization that claims chapters in 11 other cities and is run by former members of the defunct U.S. Labor Party, got into the fray.

Coalition spokesmen alleged the plan was a heinous plot by the board and the Control Data Corporation, the marketers of the PLATO instructional program, to turn Baltimore's children into "functional zombies.'' Much like drugs, they said, computers in the classroom would rob the city's students of their capacity to make sound, creative decisions.

School officials responded to the furor by developing a glossary of terms used in the plan. The four-page glossary attempted to define such jargon as "software," "micro-computer," "historical grade-reporting file," and "computer-enhanced instruction."

And the board, during the public hearings, promised to take the public's concerns to heart.

But most of the changes inserted in the final version of the plan were simply semantic or only of direct concern to the system's employees. For instance, two of the major concepts that were softened dramatically as the plan developed would have required competency tests of administrators and evaluations of school principals according to the performance of their students; the two proposals were virtually eliminated in the final version.

In terms of public relations, none of the board's attempts to respond to criticism worked.

Nor were the plan's opponents pleased when copies of the final ver-sion of the document were kept from them until the board actually had voted on it.

Just prior to the board's vote, the protesters--many of whom had not signed up beforehand to speak at the meeting, as the rules require--were told to keep quiet or leave.

When they persisted in calling out for copies of the plan, the board president, David C. Daneker, ordered security officers to escort them out.

Lost in the shuffle were several key points about the controversial proposal.

First, the board's plan calls for expenditures of about $700,000 a year on computers in each of the next five years; about half of that is to be spent on administrative support and about half for "computer-literacy" courses and "computer-enhanced" instructional systems, such as PLATO (a computer-assisted instructional system).

This comes to about three-tenths of one percent of the system's $328-million annual budget--such a small percentage that board members, pointing to other Maryland districts that already use computers more extensively than the Baltimore system does, say they are embarrassed by it.

Second, the board's commitment to computers is much more broad-based than simply ordering more PLATO terminals, which are already in about eight of the city's 185 schools. While greater number of students are to be exposed to PLATO under the plan, by 1986 all Baltimore students will also be taking "computer literacy" lessons on terminals in each school, according to the plan.

Third, the board's goal of introducing to all classes the "mastery learning" instructional method ultimately could have more far-reaching effects than anything else in the five-year plan.

(Mastery learning is based on the notion that there are no smart or dumb children, there are only those who need more time than others to learn. With more learning time, mastery-learning theory goes, almost all children can learn what was previoulsy expected of only the top 5 percent. In practice, students are taught, given a"no-fault" test, re-taught in the skills they are weak in, and then tested again to assure mastery.)

But the instructional concept got hopelessly confused in the minds of the opponents with the board's intent to use computers to grade the many tests required by the mastery-learning method--a purely mechanical aspect of the proposal.

And last, much of the five-year plan may have been nothing more than an academic exercise. The board lacks the money to carry out many of the plan's proposals in the near future, such as expanding pre-kindergarten classes. The plan is thus more of a "wish list" than the foundation for the board's budget.

In the short term, all that may have been served by the public exercise in planning was a hard lesson in communications for the board.

"We may have second thoughts on ever doing that again," one board member, Ann Jackson, joked last week.

She added: "We really need to sit down and digest what happened. It's been a long while since we had an issue flare up in public like this. A lot of things got taken out of context, totally distorted.

"I hope we've learned something from this process."

Vol. 01, Issue 14

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