Will the Kids Be Alright? Creating Change in Baltimore's Public School System

In the musical “Hairspray,” set in Baltimore, Tracy Turnblad proudly sings: “Good morning, Baltimore! Every day is an open door.” In reality, this sentiment is far from the truth. Baltimore has one of the worst- performing school districts in the country; in 2016, no student tested as proficient in math in one-third of its high schools. The impoverished state of its inner city raises questions about the level of education spending. Baltimore actually spends almost $1.4 billion annually on education, translating to roughly $16,000 per pupil. Despite the hefty investments in its public schools, city officials are still not held accountable for their management of education spending. The three major changes that should be made to Baltimore schools are: implementing strict accountability measures, adopting “need equalization,” and promoting stronger teacher-student relationships. Adopting these three changes would help to improve the school system by tackling the problems stemming from the city’s poor leadership.

Despite the large sums of money that go toward improving public schools,  the city can’t even begin to fix its educational infrastructure. Although the state of Maryland funds 93 percent of Baltimore’s school construction costs, facilities needing maintenance repair generally receive either faulty repairs or none at all. The effect on students is tremendous, since both situations worsen the classroom experience. For example, Baltimore’s chronic problem with failing boilers has caused numerous school closures. The city’s leadership must be held accountable in managing the distribution of maintenance funds; students should never miss a day of learning for something as preventable as bad or no repair.

Problems with accountability in education spending are not new and extend beyond Baltimore. Newark, New Jersey received a $100 million education grant but spent most of the money on factors unrelated to direct improvement of its school system, including outside firms and consultants. If they were held accountable for the money flow, Newark leaders could possibly have invested more in initiatives directly benefiting children, such as extracurricular activities and professional development for teachers. Leadership that spends loads of money just to produce failed results inevitably requires increased accountability measures.

Implementing “need equalization,” meaning the state would ensure that schools receive a minimum level of funding, in Baltimore’s system is essential in order to create more opportunity for educationally disadvantaged students. Lower-income areas are not necessarily unable to fund education; in fact, most city schools spend more than the statewide average (partially accounted for in costs of living). Baltimore, being one of these cities, could benefit greatly by investing in “compensatory education.” This approach is a way to tackle the problem of “vertical inequity,” the inherent disadvantages outside of anyone’s control. Vertical inequity runs rampant in Baltimore, as inner-city youth lack the almost innumerable educational resources their suburban peers enjoy. Its public schools are, in effect, extensions of the troubled neighborhoods they serve; problems from home carry into school, affecting students’ ability to learn. Compensatory education would refocus funding to improve or create enriching programs, such as counseling services and special reading programs. Offering these programs to children will help them to escape the realities at home and will also help them to enjoy going to school a lot more.

Promoting teacher-student relationships will aid in the effort to improve Baltimore’s dismally low test scores. Pressured to meet No Child Left Behind (NCLB) standards, teachers there mainly resorted to passing students on to the next grade regardless of academic performance. In Baltimore’s impoverished inner city, where children face daily struggles with gang violence, drug addiction, and unstable homes, teachers need to view them as people rather than statistics. Strengthening teacher-student relationships requires teachers to pay more attention to the formative effects of their teaching. They need to understand the value in receiving feedback on what is happening in their classrooms, because it can greatly increase student achievement. When students feel like their voices matter, the likelihood they will contribute to their own learning grows. Creating relationships with students facilitates the exchange of feedback between teacher and student, thus helping students feel more confident and secure, improving their chances to succeed in the classroom.

Together, the three changes I have mentioned can transform Baltimore’s educational landscape. They reflect an acknowledgement that education reform requires multifaceted approaches in attacking what in Baltimore’s case are systemic problems plaguing the school system. These problems are worsened by incompetent city leadership that must be held accountable. Once there is accountability throughout Baltimore’s leadership, implementation of need equalization and the promotion of teacher-student relationships will be much easier to undertake.