Kalman R. Hettleman: The Roots of Inequality in Baltimore: What Schools Can and Can’t Do

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In an article in these pages last week, Dr. Leana S. Wen, Baltimore Commissioner of Health, wrote insightfully about public health’s role in “Tackling the Roots of Inequality in Baltimore.” Needless to say, city public schools must also play an indispensable leading part. But exactly how much can city schools do, and not do?

And who’s to blame for what they now don’t do? At least 75 per cent of city students fail to meet national literacy standards, and other large school systems nationwide do no better.  

Political rhetoric, right and left, gets in the way of clear answers. Both sides start from the same point: the landmark study in 1966 by Johns Hopkins University sociologist James S. Coleman showing that school resources mean less in determining student achievement than family economic and educational background.

The point remains indisputable, but many conservatives and liberals take it too far and let schools off the hook for dismal student outcomes. Conservatives hold that parental misconduct and culture greatly limit what schools can do by themselves. Some liberals also believe that schools can do little by themselves, but they blame the absence of government programs that reduce societal poverty and inequality.

In fact, no one knows for sure how much schools can do internally, so to speak. There is no research or experience that has elevated any urban school system anywhere near the heights of widespread student proficiency. But it is also indisputable that some schools and school systems do better than others. Without doubt, we do less than we can to bring about meaningful education reform and student progress.

The city school system is well positioned to lead the national way. It has advantages in its relatively small size and lack of racial politics and union belligerence, and in the reform foothold established under its CEO Andres Alonso who departed in 2013. But in the past two years, the system has declined significantly, marked by the recent resignation of the CEO.

Fortunately, the city school board’s selection of Dr. Sonja Santelises as successor effective July 1 augurs well. There is no certain recipe for success but she brings the single most important ingredient: a deep knowledge and passionate commitment about how to improve classroom instruction, especially in literacy. She must have the political and management skills to deal with myriad stakeholders and school problems. But her overriding task is to build an instructional infrastructure that will lead to incremental, systemic improvement in the daily interactions between teachers and students.

She will need some help. There must be a fundamental understanding that it will take at least five years to grow instructional reform. And strategic supports – like more money – will strengthen and speed up the process.

Money is not all that matters. There must be less ideological posturing among conservatives who think privatization is the end-all, be-all and many liberals who resist accountability measures like high curriculum standards, appropriate tests, and requirements for the use of evidence-based instructional practices. And educators must be much better managers of the not-insignificant funding that they have.

But money still matters, and there is too little of it. That’s true in Maryland though we are in the top tier of states in school funding since the so-called Thornton law enacted in 2002. To the great credit of our lawmakers at that time, that law went a long way to provide additional funding for public schools statewide, including some equalized aid for low-wealth school districts like the city. But even then, and certainly now, the formula and allocations fail to meet the need for the resources that might enable many more students, particularly from low-income and minority families, to succeed.

A state Study on Adequacy of Funding for Education, due in December 2016, is to update the Thonrton provisions. And, under a bill passed at the last session, a Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education will review the adequacy study and look broadly at how to upgrade public schools.

Hopefully, in those efforts, there will be more recognition than in the past of the need for  funding for early identification and intervention for struggling learners, especially in reading. The high-visibility crises in our schools -- in attendance, classroom behavior, security, and dropouts, to name a few – are mainly the toxic fallout from students who fall behind in the early grades, and act out their frustration and shame at being “dummies.” Overall class size is important and is being studied, but more important are small pupil-teacher ratios and extra instructional time for timely interventions for struggling readers.

This may seem a small piece of the big puzzle of inequality in public schooling. But it is an indispensable andattainable piece. Dr. Santelises will spend the money well, and under her leadership, we can be hopeful that Baltimore will regain its place in the in the forefront of national school reform.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former Baltimore City deputy mayor and member of the school board and Maryland secretary of human resources. His email: .

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