Shilling wants agency pared to focus on school aid

December 20, 1990|By Kathy Lally

The State Board of Education is considering a novel proposal for a bureaucracy: voluntarily slashing its size, and risking a decline in influence, so that it can do its job better.

Joseph L. Shilling, the state superintendent of schools, yesterday suggested transferring more than two-thirds of his employees -- working in areas like vocational rehabili

tation -- to other agencies to concentrate all his attention on helping elementary and secondary schools.

And in a second burst of education-reform fervor, state officials have proposed dramatically toughening teacher recertification requirements so that instead of taking courses in such duties as putting up bulletin boards, teachers would have to submit a comprehensive plan of study for approval and undergo a periodic performance evaluation.

Maryland would be the first state in the nation to set such tough standards with a requirement for a periodic evaluation, said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the state board. It would also be certain to provoke the wrath of teacher unions.

Both proposals would involve considerable risks for an agency that generally takes few.

"It's certainly unusual that a department head would suggest losing 1,000 of his 1,400 employees," Mr. Embry said with understatement.

"Just don't cut my salary," Dr. Shilling joked.

Dr. Shilling was actually quite serious. He made the proposal to trim his agency's sails as part of the school reform effort he introduced last spring. He wants to make schools answerable for the way students perform, as measured by tough tests that are being developed.

In order to survive the tests -- which could result in schools being closed if they can't improve -- school systems will need state help, Dr. Shilling has said.

Mr. Embry pointed out that the suggestion for trimming the agency was fraught with risk. "Do we gain more by moving those functions?" he asked. "Is the department a more significant player in the legislature by having more employees and a bigger budget?"

Those are the kinds of questions that will be addressed as Dr. Shilling begins discussions with Gov. William Donald Schaefer on the agency's future in the coming weeks. The superintendent wants the board -- and governor and state legislature -- to think, for example, about moving the department's 750 vocational rehabilitation employees to another agency, perhaps mental health or employment and training.

The 400 employees remaining would be devoted to improving the state's elementary and secondary schools.

"I've been here a long time," Dr. Shilling said, "and I have a lot invested in these programs." But the agency must figure out the most efficient and powerful way of helping schools improve, he said.

The board generally supported the idea, though some members said they had some reservations.

Maryland's system of teacher recertification -- which is supposed to keep teachers up-to-date by requiring study throughout their careers -- was assailed in a study last spring by the Abell Foundation, of which Mr. Embry is president.

The study found that even though tax funds reimburse teachers for recertification courses, few controls exist on how the money is spent. Many teachers take courses on how to teach -- many of which have been attacked recently as ineffective -- instead of courses expanding their knowledge of the subjects they teach.

And a principal who feels a teacher has a weakness can't require the teacher to take a particular course.

The changes the board is considering will be discussed in detail at later board meetings.

The state board also approved a new teaching certificate that can be granted to people who have not studied education courses in college. The alternative route to certification is called a resident teacher certificate.

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