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Problems in the Baltimore City Public School System

By Dr. Amna Afreen

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela

As adults we must accept that life is an ongoing challenge to act in accordance with our shared values of human dignity. If only there were a formula for translating high ideals into action, for implementing good governance–systems whose goal is to provide for all people and whose success is measured on the well-being of the weakest among us, rather than on the MOST powerful–on a grand scale, once and for all! But history tells us that the weak will always be vulnerable to the impacts of business and politics conducted for the benefit of the powerful. 

Those of us in education have embraced that challenge. Inspired by the great South African leader, Nelson Mandela, who taught that education is the most powerful weapon, we work to empower our youth by giving them the tools to understand the world around them and navigate it with confidence. Hopefully, we teach them that they need not fear a world that seems so unfair and dangerous. We must teach them the skills that will give them confidence to embrace challenges and contribute to solutions. 

Although Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the United States with a poverty rate of 9.0%, Baltimore has a poverty rate of 20.2%. Students are exposed to trauma, violence, drug addiction, lead toxins, homelessness, and poor health/nutrition. Such exposures result in anxiety, ADHD, depression, impulse control problems and aggression. 

My students suffer from many of the problems listed above. I teach Social Living to the 2nd graders. When I told them there are 50 states in the US, they didn’t believe me. Many said there could not be more than 7-8 States. And when my colleague who also teaches 2nd grade asked students to name some planets, they named Baltimore, New York, and some other states. 

The factors our students face often have behavioral outcomes. Emma* used to scream a lot, fight with others, and disrupt everyone. Once she was silent, I asked her how she was doing. She said she didn’t want to come to school because her dad was coming home. I asked, “From where?” She replied “From jail”. After a while, I told her that I want to talk to her dad about her behavior. She said, “Ms. Afreen, he does not live with us anymore. He was bad with me and mom. So, my mom moved him out.”

The school system cannot solve the city’s problems, and the curriculum is not addressing their needs. 

The unified curriculum called Common Core was designed as an approach that would help to narrow the gap in the federal test score, which is a knowledge gap, between ethnic and racial groups. It requires not only to investigate but also articulate thorough understandings of the texts and the author’s purpose. This requires pre-reading and comprehension skills. Some of my students have parents who cannot read English. This curriculum works well for rich school districts, where kids read fluently and parents read them stories. It does not work so well in Baltimore City.

The solution lies in interventions that are lacking. There should be interventionists willing to go to homes, because absentees are prominent in homeless and needy students. “Baltimore has the highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the state: 37 percent of students missed at least 10 percent of school last year.” 

Summer programs could help low-income families, who usually lose academic learning during summer vacations. “However, summer learning programs are often an afterthought of school districts or not offered at all, especially in restrictive funding environments.” 

Baltimore summer programs are mostly designed for the high achievers. Thus, the needy students are missing opportunities. The future of Baltimore depends upon the future of its students. Yet, the system is designed to help self-motivated kids from nurturing families. There is not much to offer to the students with the most needs.

When Mandela spoke of education as the most powerful tool for changing the world, he knew we couldn’t change it once and for all. But education allows us to understand the problems we face and devise constructive ways to resolve them, working together, in our communities. Without education, the world our children face seems incomprehensibly cruel – perceptions that lead to hopelessness, frustration, anger, and sometimes rage. 

But teachers need tools, too.

At present, teachers are small cogs on a big cogwheel designed to help the system. Although they are the main actors, teachers are at the base of the hierarchical system. They have no authority over the given universal curriculum. On top of that, unnecessary testing like iReady BoY (Beginning of year), MoY (Middle of year), and EoY (end of year), Amplify DIBELS 8, and interim assessments takes time and energy. According to Natalie Wexler, “testing has been seen as the means of ensuring that all children get the high-quality education, but in many ways, it’s been just the opposite.” “A two-year study released in 2015 revealed that kids were being forced to take too many mandated standardized tests—and that there was no evidence that adding testing time was improving student achievement.”

Teachers need support from intervention systems. Para-educators and other intervention staff could support restorative practices like calming exercises for students. Baltimore City students need extra care and attention to cover the achievement gap. They need remedial interventions to reach the level at which the rich kids start. Even the most highly motivated teacher can’t make up for generations of neglect by the system, lack of resources, filthy environments, and poor policies. But with the right resources, dedicated teachers can help students overcome these challenges and become great resources in our communities, helping all of us create better societies, one neighborhood at a time.

*Students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.