Glendening Feels the Heat on School Reform

March 06, 1995|By TIM BAKER

When Parris N. Glendening was running for governor, he promised to make education one of his top three priorities. But his first budget cut the funds for the state's universities and colleges. Now he's beginning to make decisions about elementary and secondary education. Is he committed to educational reform and excellence?

Maybe it's too soon to tell. But the early signals aren't encouraging. Why, for example, didn't he reappoint Robert C. Embry Jr. to the State Board of Education?

For the last six years, Mr. Embry has led a state board that has dramatically changed the direction of Maryland's schools. Innovative new programs have raised academic standards, tested student achievement, assessed school performance, imposed accountability and promoted reform.

Attendance has improved, and the drop-out rate has declined. The number of students passing the demanding new statewide achievement tests has gone up. The number of high school graduates who meet the University of Maryland's entrance requirements has risen, too.

Mr. Embry hardly did all this by himself. The credit belongs to the full board, the State Department of Education, local school boards and thousands of dedicated principals and teachers. But Mr. Embry has been the leader. Many of the ideas were his. He's pushed, prodded and scolded to promote them. Eventually, they might have been implemented without him, but they wouldn't have been as comprehensive or as rigorous.

More than anything else, Mr. Embry has insisted on top standards, objective measurements and uncompromising + accountability. The new statewide student-achievement tests were so demanding that at first not a single school earned a satisfactory rating.

None of this has won him popularity with school administrators and teachers unions. Accountability irritates them, and the test results have embarrassed them. The Maryland State Teachers Association complained during last year's political campaign. Mr. Glendening listened and courted. The teachers endorsed and supported. Did he dump Mr. Embry at their insistence?

The governor has certainly been responsive to the teachers union. For example, it has long wanted to take teacher certification and recertification matters away from the State Board of Education and give them to something called the Professional Standards and Teacher Education Board. Why? Because the teachers can control that body -- 22 of its 25 members are either nominees or representatives of the teachers unions and other professional education groups.

The certification bill is now before the state legislature. The governor is backing it over the unanimous and heated opposition of the state board. Why? Wouldn't it be better for questions of teacher competence to be determined by the independent and objective State Board of Education rather than by one the teachers can influence?

Maybe there's some other explanation for these early moves. Isn't a governor entitled to appoint his own people? Of course he is, and Mr. Embry isn't one of them. But then again neither is Walter Sondheim Jr., Governor Glendening's last-minute pick to replace him.

Isn't a governor entitled to appoint people who will follow his own policies? Yes. But Mr. Sondheim represents no change in direction. He headed the commission that first proposed stricter standards for state schools, and he's been a strong supporter of Mr. Embry's ideas. So he'll continue the same policies and programs. But if there's not going to be any change in direction, why didn't the governor reappoint Mr. Embry himself?

Because Mr. Embry has made enemies? Good. That's probably inevitable if you try to impose high standards and rigorous accountability on public education's politically powerful constituencies. If Governor Glendening is afraid to offend those groups, then we'll inevitably see a slow and steady decline in the vigor and effectiveness of state educational reform.

Let's watch. Will the governor support Nancy Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools? It's hard to imagine a better one. Baltimore public-school graduate, teacher, school administrator, secretary of juvenile services. Bright. Professional. Courageous. Hard-working. Absolutely dedicated to the best interests of school children.

Ms. Grasmick has some tough fights ahead. Will the proposed statewide achievement tests for high school students enforce the same high standards that have characterized the 3rd-, 5th- and 8th-grade tests? Will the School Performance Assessment Program be continued? Will the state step in and ''reconstitute'' schools that consistently fail to live up to minimum requirements?

These programs have aroused controversy. Poor assessments embarrass school administrators and teachers who aren't used to being graded themselves. School reconstitutions make mayors and school boards look bad in front of voters. All of them complain. A governor has to take the heat. Will Mr. Glendening? Will he support these programs and the people who are trying to implement them?

He said he would -- during his campaign. But he said a lot of things when he was running for office. He made a lot of promises. Too many of them were made to political interest groups. Now some of those promises are coming back to haunt him. They create political problems. But as governor he must honor an overriding educational commitment -- to preserve and promote the progress that has finally begun in Maryland's public schools.

Tim Baker is a lawyer who writes from Columbia.

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