Fixing What Ails the Schools

November 15, 1994

Designing schools of the future poses an interesting dilemma. At issue is not just what is best for students, but what a community feels is best for itself. The two are rarely synonymous. And the conflicts that arise from attempts to accomplish both ends seldom result in consensus.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of good that can come from the effort by Howard school officials to devise a blueprint for county schools into the next century. If nothing else, the project, entitled "Beyond the Year 2000," should serve as a valuable catharsis, bringing more clarity to what lies ahead for the school system.

The truth is, school systems are increasingly engaged in this sort of self-examination. Certainly in the intensely parent-driven schools of Howard County, such introspection is commonplace as officials attempt to keep pace with community demands. Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's effort is well-considered because, unlike a similar document written a decade ago, this one attempts to incorporate the community's concerns. Moving an entire school system in a cohesive fashion is a daunting undertaking, however.

The consensus among the public is that schools have lost their way recently, abandoning the basics for a host of frivolous endeavors that have little to do with education. Eliminating unnecessary programs while refocusing teachers on the essentials, however, is not as simple as it seems.

One person's fluffy self-esteem program is another's tool for furthering success. And even as these things are being discussed, new initiatives are being undertaken that could alter the outcome for the future.

For example, as The Sun reported yesterday, schools in Howard County and beyond are moving toward self-contained programs for ninth-graders to ease their transition to high school, to help address dropout rates and other problems for high school freshmen. Developing a mission for the school system is not so much a matter of "bringing back the past," as it is finding what works and moving ahead.

Planning for the 21st century should not mean throwing out the baby with the bath water. Howard County schools do too many things right to allow this assessment to degenerate into a self-pitying treatise. Radical reform is not what is needed in Howard County -- just steady, focused progress.

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