Md. orders schools to improve or else

August 28, 1994|By Gary Gately and Mike Bowler | Gary Gately and Mike Bowler,Maryland Department of Education/SEAN McDONALD/SUN STAFF GRAPHICSun Staff Writers

Across Maryland -- in superintendents' suites, in principals' offices, in classrooms, in school boardrooms; from the inner city to the wealthiest suburbs to the most remote of rural outposts -- the message is unequivocally clear:

The state is watching local schools as never before, and demanding that local districts rejuvenate them -- or else.

Fix failing schools, the state tells local districts, or the state will do it, by wresting control of them from you.

Rewrite curriculum, the state decrees, to replace outmoded rote learning and prepare children for college and an ever more complex and demanding work world.

Grade not only the students, the state demands, but give every public school in Maryland a report card, too -- detailing test scores, attendance and promotion and dropout rates.

Prove your competence, the state warns teachers, or you'll lose your license to teach.

Demonstrate you can apply "higher-order" thinking to real-world situations, the state orders students, and prove it by taking new tests unlike any anybody has ever seen.

Build students' character, the state directs local teachers, by forcing them to perform community service.

As Maryland schools open this week and next, all of this has meant changes for anyone who goes to school -- students, teachers and administrators. Franklin High School Principal Evelyn G. Cogswell has to hire a science teacher at her Reisterstown school to meet new graduation requirements. Jacqueline Brown, community service coordinator at Patuxent Valley Middle School in Jessup, scrambles to match students with charities. Children at Phelps Luck Elementary in Columbia, says one of their teachers, cry in frustration as they struggle with one of the new state tests.

"Clearly, the pressure is there, and it's intense," says Barbara Whitman, an English teacher at Franklin High, summing up the sentiments of many of Maryland's more than 45,000 public school teachers.

Perhaps the most visible evidence of the more aggressive state attitude can be found at Baltimore City's Patterson and Frederick Douglass high schools, the first two schools threatened with the ultimate sanction -- state takeover.

Abysmal test scores, low attendance (seven of 10 children show up each day at the schools) and dropout rates (38 percent a year at Douglass), prompted the state to target the two schools.

Next week, as a result of the city's state-ordered improvement plans, both schools will open with new principals, numerous other staff changes, separate academies focusing on career and academic programs and other strategies to reverse years of decline.

And this year, more schools will be added to the list targeted for takeover.

'Accountability'

It's all about "accountability," a word invoked constantly, as if a mantra, by state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, the state school board and more than a few state lawmakers. In its quest for accountability, Maryland's efforts threaten the long-cherished notion of local control over schools and place the state in unprecedented roles as reformer, catalyst and enforcer for the state's 772,000 public school students.

During her three years at the helm, Dr. Grasmick, working closely with her board, has never flinched from delivering politically risky decrees and executing far-reaching policies.

"It's amazing," says Baltimore County Superintendent Stuart Berger. "If we'd been sitting here in 1984 when I was superintendent in Frederick County, and you'd told me this was going to happen, I'd have said you were crazy."

Blunt response

To those who ask why the state should meddle in local affairs, Dr. Grasmick is characteristically blunt, pointing to alarming dropout rates, incompetent teachers, dismal attendance, "seat time" rather than performance as a standard for credit, high schools that graduate kids unable to write a few literate sentences.

Today's reform-minded interventions can be traced to a man some of the state's top educators and policy-makers regard as a visionary, longtime Baltimore civic leader Walter Sondheim. His ideas, which seemed much more radical five years ago, have since been widely embraced.

In 1989, a governor's commission headed by Mr. Sondheim prescribed detailed "accountability" measures for every school and every school system.

Dr. Grasmick says for too long politics and adult interests have superseded children's. "If you focus on the reason we're in this business -- educating children -- if you really are committed to that, it gets back to what I said so many times before: No child should get an inferior education because of where that child lives."

Full-scale offensive

But her critics, notably the Maryland State Teachers Association (MSTA), have conducted a full-scale offensive against some of the reforms.

A day before the state board approved the "reconstitution" -- or takeover -- measure in November, the union launched an ad campaign denouncing the measure as a scheme to turn public schools over to private operators.

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