Federal

State Steps in Under NCLB in Baltimore

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 31, 2006 5 min read
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Maryland became the first state to use its authority under the No Child Left Behind Act to seize control of failing schools, as the state board of education this week ordered new management at 11 middle and high schools in Baltimore.

Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland’s superintendent of schools, led the push to take over four high schools and to shrink the district’s role in operating seven middle schools.

The vote set off a firestorm in Baltimore. State lawmakers who represent the city rushed to introduce a bill to delay the state takeover, and Brian Morris, the chairman of the Baltimore school board, suggested the district might file a lawsuit.

School and city leaders condemned the state board’s decision as a political one that won’t help children and said it would stifle a 4-year-old high school improvement effort that includes the four high schools to be stripped from the district’s control.

Ronald A. Peiffer, a deputy superintendent for the Maryland education department, countered that student achievement and state test scores at some of the 11 schools have been dismal for as long as 12 years.

Intervention was critical, he said, because the class of 2009—students who are 9th graders now—must pass the Maryland High School Assessments in English, biology, government, and algebra in order to graduate.

“I think the board and the superintendent felt that we have 10,000 kids across those 11 schools that were not being served properly,” Mr. Peiffer said. “It’s gone on far too long.”

In taking the March 29 actions, the state board was operating under the provision of the federal law that obligates states to intervene in districts that have failed to improve. The entire 85,000-student Baltimore system has been under “corrective action” status since July 2003, but state officials said not enough progress had been made.

‘Logical Progression’

That Maryland would be the first state to exercise its full authority under the federal law came as little surprise. The state has long had an aggressive accountability system, under which in 1999 it contracted with the New York City-based Edison Schools Inc. to operate three Baltimore elementary schools.

One education expert said the state’s takeover of the four high schools, which required state education officials to invoke the most drastic penalty for failing schools under the NCLB law, will reverberate nationally.

“If I were in another big-city district, I’d be following this very closely,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, which closely tracks the federal law.

“This is a logical progression if a state is to be responsible for all children doing well,” he said, “though there may be disputes about the right way to do it or whether they will get better results.”

Under the plan for the high schools, the Maryland education department will hire outside managers—such as the for-profit Edison, a university, or a nonprofit community organization—to run the schools, Mr. Peiffer said. Those third-party providers would report directly to state education officials.

In those schools, roughly 80 percent to 90 percent of the students have not passed any of Maryland’s high school assessments. At Frederick Douglass High School, only 4.8 percent of students passed the algebra portion of the exam last year.

Bonnie S. Copeland, the chief executive officer of the Baltimore district, said the high schools takeover troubles her most.

The district—with more than $21 million in support from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and nine local foundations—is in the middle of a venture to restructure several city high schools, including those that the state will take over, Ms. Copeland said. The state superintendent was a signatory to the plan and has participated in hammering out its details, she said.

“We had a blueprint for at least a five-year plan to work on these schools, and midway through, we recognized that this would take longer than five years,” Ms. Copeland said. “We’d like to be able to continue.”

The seven middle schools slated for intervention must either be converted to charter schools or run by outside managers who will be chosen by the school district. Those campuses are vital, state officials said, because they feed the high schools that will be taken over.

“Students are leaving those middle schools unprepared and then are not being prepared as they progress through those high schools,” said JoAnne Carter, an assistant superintendent in the state education department.

Required Curricula

The state board also voted to require Baltimore to adopt a new curriculum for middle and high schools in the subjects that are tested on the High School Assessments. Mr. Peiffer said Baltimore educators would have to choose among the curricula being used by one of Maryland’s 23 other school systems.

In addition, the state is requiring Baltimore to evaluate and possibly replace its “area academic officers,” provide leadership training, improve school safety, name specialists to oversee “restructuring” schools, and draft support plans for students who must pass the state exams but are at risk of not graduating.

One of the biggest challenges for the Maryland takeover plan will be finding capable third-party managers for the schools, said Jolley Bruce Christman, a researcher who has studied the Philadelphia school district since a panel appointed by the state and mayor took over that district in 2001 and contracted with outside providers to operate schools.

“There are not that many outside education-management organizations that have a track record of managing schools, especially at the middle and high school level,” said Ms. Christman, a principal investigator with Research for Action, a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia.

The state of Maryland has played a large, often contentious role in the governance of Baltimore’s schools since 1997, when the two sides struck a compromise to settle a school funding dispute. Part of that deal includes the city’s nine-member school board, which the mayor and the governor appoint jointly.

Overcoming that history of acrimony will also be a challenge for state officials, Ms. Christman said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as Maryland Is First State to Take Over Failing Schools Under NCLB

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