It’s too soon to tell if the Baltimore City school district is criminal, but it sure is incompetent.
So says a report from Maryland’s Inspector General for Education, which recently recommended an independent audit after alleging that more than 12,000 student grades were manipulated between 2016 and 2019 under “a culture of fear and a veil of secrecy.”
The Inspector General is not alone in questioning the “misunderstanding, misapplication, and non-compliance of grade change procedures” in Baltimore. Governor Larry Hogan responded to the report by condemning a perceived “moral failing” on the part of administrators. Subsequently, Del. Kathy Szeliga embraced the cause and decried “corrupt bureaucracy” in the district.
One Baltimore City schools (BCPS) spokesperson, playing damage control, attempted to chalk the contested grade changes up to “growing pains” from implementing 2019 reforms. The statement provided to WMAR-2 News implied that teachers gave grace on assignments on their own initiative, without undue pressures from administration.
While the IG report confirms that such reforms occurred, it isn’t keen on excusing the district’s recent past.
For context, “[p]rior to 2019… only a single signature,” that of the school principal or their designee, was allowed on the form for student grade changes. Revisions enacted on October 1, 2019 expanded requirements to include a justification for the change, the principal or designee signature, and a teacher signature. In theory, the district now permits teachers to provide input regarding when make-up assignments are appropriate for students verging on failing.
These revisions suggest that a corrupt administration may not be solely to blame for the plummeting standards in Baltimore schools. Teachers’ misapplied compassion, miscommunication between responsible staff members, and general carelessness have almost certainly played their parts.
Email records obtained by the Office of the Inspector General do show that at least some administrators asked teachers to perform student grade changes without providing any rationale. Any outside observer with half a brain cell could tell these were blatant attempts to inflate graduation rates.
And yet, the report also highlighted an interview with one unnamed “staff member” who openly defended grade changes where a failing student “would not retain any more information from repeating a class, and is on the cusp of passing.” Though one can understand how a well-meaning person could want to move a student up if they were so close to a 60, this attitude is deeply flawed in prioritizing subjective judgment over objective learning metrics.
By the Inspector General’s account, Baltimore City staff also seemed to have no consistent understanding of how the district student information software, Infinite Campus, actually worked. Compounding the issue, some grade changes were rooted in learned-on-the-job behaviors and unspoken assumptions rather than formal written policy. Others were likely caused by repeated oversights, like missed grade entering deadlines and complications due to the baffling exclusion of long-term substitute teachers from Infinite Campus.
None of these explanations excuse the longstanding low expectations in Baltimore public schools.
At best, they display sustained dysfunction and muddled district values. This really shouldn’t be surprising. Reports on Baltimore School’s failings stretch back as far as 2017, showing that loose standards and insufficient expectations were clearly the norm for BCPS, even before the pandemic closed schools down. Now that they’ve reopened, district officials must take care not to make the even weaker COVID-era standards endemic, and Baltimore schools should never hide poor grades to protect administrators’ egos and job security, or to amplify misguided theories on education.
Higher-ups need to finally feel the heat. Thankfully, Gov. Hogan and the Maryland GOP are bringing much needed sanity to the situation.
Administrators who want to show that they actually give a damn about devastating press coverage, potential political retribution, and the profound disservice that has been done to students in need, should finally take a hint from years of nationally infamous failures. If BCPS ever hopes to buck its dismal reputation, it must reckon with its failures now and focus all its efforts on ensuring the diplomas it’s issuing are worth more than the paper they’re printed on.