High school teacher Barbara Dandridge left education more than five years ago to find ways to improve it.
The Howard County foreign language teacher and administrator got tired of seeing schools that were failing to educate their students.
She saw some schools that were teaching students well and others that weren't. She ran into wonderful teachers as well as really bad ones.
"Students should be able to go from one school to another and get the same quality education," said Dr. Dandridge, who taught Oakland Mills High School and became an assistant principal at Atholton and Mount Hebron. "Even within the same school, some teachers were doing better than others. I didn't think we were educating our students to their potential."
Some students who were sent to her office could not read and caused trouble in class to avoid being called on in front of their classmates. Others felt school was a waste of time. Something was wrong, she felt.
The fault lies not within the schools or the teachers, but within the system itself, she said.
What was missing was a systemic approach to teaching -- policies, practices and procedures to implement curricula, to show teachers what to teach and more important, how to teach it.
Off she went in 1986 on sabbatical to George Washington University, where she studied administration, education and policy studies, earning a doctorate in 1990.
During her graduate work, she traveled to Europe as well as parts of Asia with nationally recognized educators to garner information.
She's now culling information from her travels for a book on education reform, and she's going to China and Malaysia this summer with other educators to get another perspective on Asian education.
Some of her findings:
* Schools nationwide use faulty standardized tests to measure students' abilities. "These test scores don't match what they're learning in their curriculum anyway," she said. "Parents are just not well-informed. They don't have information they need to determine what is a quality education. Their students are being tested on things they haven't been taught or things not taught in the classroom."
What they should be using instead are performance assessment tests that measure students' knowledge, Dr. Dandridge said.
Leslie Walker-Bartnick, the county schools' testing supervisor, agreed with Dr. Dandridge and said Howard County couples standardized tests with a performance assessment test to determine whether students can apply what they learned.
"Kids do hands-on scientific experiments and write about their predictions on how they would turn out," she said. "They do probability and statistics."
* Schools in Japan succeed because they hold the same high standards for all of their children, and because they believe their economic system is tied to their educational system. Teachers are paid on par with doctors, lawyers and engineers.
PD "We keep talking about smaller classes," Dr. Dandridge said, but
Japanese schools have classes as large as 60 students. Teachers give lessons for only 17 hours a week -- the rest of the time, they give individual attention to students, who work in small groups.
* Functional tests, such as the state's reading, writing, math and citizenship exams that are required for graduation, cramp expectations for student achievement.
"What we set as a minimum is a maximum for these kids," she said. "The essence of what they learn starts as a floor, but then becomes the ceiling."
One reason Howard County schools use functional tests is t ensure that students are leaving with basic skills, Ms. Walker said. She said testing is moving to the seventh-grade level to allow middle school teachers to work with remedial students before they enter high school.
Dr. Dandridge said school systems must focus on educating students in a scientific way: Look at their goals, objectives, implementation and strategies.
"What we have right now is a helter-skelter approach," said Dr. Dandridge, an assistant principal at Gateway School, a facility for students with behavioral or emotional problems. "It's like the luck of the draw or a flick of the dice on whether children learn."
She also advises school systems not to rely on gimmicks, like school-based management and magnet centers.
Most of those initiatives are tangential to what happens in school systems, she said. "They've been good public relations gimmicks, but they've not really made a difference in the classroom. Initiatives have all dealt with schools. We need to become student-centered and teacher-centered."
"For every dollar we invest in schools, we get $5 or $6 back," she said. "For every dollar we invest in the criminal justice system, we get nothing back. It's far more productive to educate students."