Trying to move from regulating to helping, Maryland educators follow other states

December 23, 1990|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Kathy Lally covers education for The Sun.

In last Sunday's Perspective section, a man was incorrectl identified in a photo caption on page 5J. The man shown is actually Elliot Merenbloom, director of middle school instruction for Baltimore County schools.

The Sun regrets the error.

The State Board of Education spent a big chunk of a morning not long ago discussing whether to use the word "should" or "shall" in a school health regulation. The superintendent, who had been making loud plans to turn the agency into a school helper instead of regulator, could only smile ruefully when asked just when that transformation would occur.

Last week, Joseph L. Shilling, the superintendent, did more than smile. He proposed stripping his agency of 1,000 of its 1,400 employees as a first step in transforming it into a helping organization.


Only 400 of the Education Department's employees work in jobs related to the state's elementary and secondary schools, and Dr. Shilling is thinking of transferring the others to different agencies so he can concentrate on the 400. Then he wants to make drastic changes in what the 400 do.

Instead of having them spend their time telling schools how many math courses their students should take, for example, he wants them to bring all their energies to bear on helping the schools teach math better.

About 750 of the department's employees now work in vocational rehabilitation, helping train people who have been disabled or impaired for jobs. Others work overseeing the state's libraries or in private school accreditation or in running prison education programs or adult literacy projects.

Dr. Shilling is suggesting moving the prison programs to the state's Correction Division or the vocational rehab folks to employment and training or health departments, leaving him and the other 400 with a more sharply focused mission.

The proposal is only in the talk stage now, but just by bringing it up Dr. Shilling was making it clear he was serious about changing the purpose of his agency from regulating and administering to doing everything possible to help schools improve across the state.

In a recent interview, he said he expected to have a major reorganization in place by July 1. That will occur, he said, whether or not he keeps the programs that are tangential to his real mission. And at last week's board meeting, he promised he would have a plan ready soon on how the 400 school people

would be moved around.

The change would be part of Dr. Shilling's school reform plan, which moves the emphasis of the state Education Department from accounting for how many courses students take to what schools have taught them -- a shift from regulating input to assessing outcome. Along with that, the superintendent wants to give the schools help in meeting new demands for student performance.

"We intend to have this department reconfigured in a way to offer local schools help," he said.

Just how does anyone go about changing the entire nature of a bureaucracy?

"With difficulty," Dr. Shilling laughed. And then he added, "I'm serious.

"Regulations don't exist because I or my predecessor or his predecessor want them. They exist because people see the potential for abuses and you try to prevent them. But to try to stop that process is very difficult to begin."

In an ideal world, he said, education officials would say they didn't have to worry about school health regulations, and there would be no should-or-shall debate. But what happens, he says, is that various groups come in and complain that schools aren't doing things right.

"You can either ignore that, pay attention and offer teachers assistance or pass a regulation. That's what our board is wrestling with now," Dr. Shilling said -- figuring out how to make sure things get done without excessive and unhelpful rules.

That issue has taken education departments across the country by storm in recent months, largely because of yet another trend: The latest and most alluring trend in education circles is what's called school-based management or restructuring or decentralization.

It's hot in Baltimore, where Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke decided last week that Richard C. Hunter, the superintendent, had to go because he was dragging his feet on restructuring. And it's hot in Maryland, where Dr. Shilling's plans for school reform are predicated on individual schools' having more authority and responsibility for their affairs.

That impulse to turn decisions over to schools calls into question basic assumptions about the hierarchies perched atop those schools. Those questions have reached state departments of education with profound impact. And Maryland's examination of the role of its department is well in line with what's happening elsewhere.

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