For more than a year, Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI) received high marks in Baltimore for its operation of nine inner-city public schools.
“In Baltimore, Capitalism Gets an 'A' in Education,” trumpeted the headline to one especially favorable report. Washington Post business columnist James K. Glassman credited the firm with refurbishing the schools, cutting overhead, bringing new enthusiasm to students and teachers alike and making a profit to boot.
But the favorable publicity for the closely watched experiment may stem more from astute public relations than from documented results. While the company draws nearly unanimous raves for the physical appearance of the schools, reports issued early this year question its school management and classroom instruction.
At Harlem Park elementary and middle schools, students sit at group tables instead of regimented rows of individual desks. Teachers appear to emphasize active learning techniques, such as reading aloud or manipulating objects, rather than tedious rote drill.
But a Pennsylvania educator commissioned by the Maryland Teachers' Association saw things differently. Olivia S. Reusing, visited Harlem Park and one other EAI-run school in December. In a 13-page report, Reusing said the classroom methods “fell short of the ideals described in Tesseract literature. . . . In no classroom during the two days of visits did I observe methodologies which encouraged students to act as self-directed learners and problem solvers.”
In an interview, Reusing was also critical of the use of computers, saying students worked mainly on elementary drill questions. In February, a reporter looking over the shoulders of sixth-graders using computers also saw seemingly basic, multiple- choice questions being worked on. One question asked what kind of book would be used to locate a country: (a) dictionary; (b) atlas; (c) encyclopedia.
Golle repudiates Reusing's report: “Paid for by the union, walked through the schools for two days, to my knowledge never done this kind of evaluation before.” Nat Harrington, director of communications for Baltimore City Public Schools, is similarly dismissive. “It seemed like a rushing to judgment, of sorts,” he says.
The school system's own evaluation of EAI's performance, however, is mixed. The 158-page January report found that the company had doubled the budgeted expenditures for facilities at the nine schools, conducted well-received teacher-training sessions and increased parental involvement. But the evaluation also found areas where it faulted EAI:
-- An initial “Personal Education Plan” -- a central component of the Tesseract method -- was prepared for only 85 percent of the 4,800 students in the nine schools, not all students as promised. The preparation rate for scheduled second and third plans dropped to 56 percent and 23 percent.
-- Repairs were found to have been completed faster than before, but the report also noted complaints that purchase orders “stayed on desks too long.”
-- A survey of a random sample of 65 teachers found that 53 percent were “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied” with the Tesseract program, compared with 46 percent who were “somewhat satisfied” or “not satisfied.” But only 38 percent thought education quality had improved, while 48 percent saw no improvement or a decline, and 6 percent said quality had declined.
On the all-important issue of student achievement, only fragmentary results are available so far. The Computer Curriculum Corp., which installed computers in the school last spring, found an average student gain of 88 percent (almost one grade level) three months later -- considerably higher than the typical 30 percent grade- level gain. But results from standardized tests administered by the school system will not be available until the end of the current school year.
EAI failed to get hoped-for contracts to operate additional schools in February and March, but Baltimore school officials continued to voice confidence in the company. “They are doing everything they were pledged to do,” Superintendent Walter Amprey told a news conference March 8.
On Wall Street, however, investors were less confident, and the stock price fell from a high of 48 in November to a low of 13 early this month.
In the March 8 session with reporters, however, Golle noted that the company made a 3.2 percent profit last year. “We believe that the prospect for our company has never been greater,” Golle said.