School district avoids search for 'the best' Unusual attitude: Garrett County won't participate in contests to name teachers or schools of the year.

The Education Beat

November 08, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WHEN KENT County third-grade teacher Edward J. Silver Jr. was named Maryland Teacher of the Year last month, Garrett County school Superintendent Jerome J. Ryscavage watched the ceremony on public television.

"I thoroughly enjoyed it," Dr. Ryscavage said. "But we had no direct interest in the outcome."

For years, Garrett has eschewed contests to name teachers and schools "of the year," "outstanding" teachers and "blue-ribbon" schools.

"We've talked about it at all levels in the county for the last three to five years," said Dr. Ryscavage, "and we've been under pressure from time to time to join in, but the feeling here is that we're reluctant to get into the business of finding the best of anything. We have a great deal of difficulty singling out somebody or some thing, whether it's a teacher, a principal, a superintendent or a school. Maybe it's Appalachian independence."

Whatever it is, it's an unusual attitude these days. Educators once agreed with the independent people of Maryland's westernmost county. But in recent years they've moved from deep suspicion to warm embrace of the superlative.

In the past month or so, Education Beat has received news of four such competitions. Last month, five Maryland teachers received $25,000 each as winners of the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Awards. Last

week, a blind New Jersey high school teacher, Richard Ruffalo, was named winner of the American Teacher Awards, a contest sponsored by Walt Disney Co. and McDonald's.

And Mr. Silver, 37, was named Maryland Teacher of the Year and propelled into competition for the nation's top teacher, to be announced next spring by the federal Department of Education. (The Maryland contest is sponsored by the state Education Department, the Maryland Business Roundtable Foundation and various businesses, including The Baltimore Sun.)

Note that none of the contests uses the word "best" or "top," but their sponsors know that the media will use those words, as USA Today did Monday in reporting on Mr. Ruffalo's selection as America's "top" teacher.

Some contests don't attempt to find a single honoree. The National Association of Elementary School Principals, for example, last month honored 57 elementary and middle school principals (including Kenneth E. Mann of Bester Elementary in Hagerstown) in its National Distinguished Principals Program.

But many contests seek the one. And if educators are uncomfortable about singling out a teacher from 47,000 in Maryland or 3 million in the United States, they don't acknowledge it. (Neither, in fact, do most journalists object to the Pulitzer Prizes, which purport to honor the best reporting in their craft each year.)

It wasn't always thus. Ronald A. Peiffer, assistant state superintendent who heads public relations for the state education department, said that when Maryland got into the business of selecting "blue-ribbon schools" about nine years ago, several districts were reluctant to participate. Now all but Garrett do -- enthusiastically.

And teacher unions such as the Maryland State Teachers Association, which traditionally have resisted "merit pay" for outstanding teachers because they believe the practice is subject to politics and favoritism, once opposed "teacher of the year" contests for similar reasons. That's no longer the case.

"We see it [the teacher of the year contest] as an excellent opportunity to highlight what is right with the public schools," said Patricia A. Foerster, MSTA vice president. "Besides, excellent teaching is seldom the work of a single individual, as any teacher who is so honored will tell you. Edward Silver would be the first to tell you that it takes teamwork."

What it boils down to is public relations. Educators know contests honoring the "best" will produce publicity countering what they see as a steady stream of "negative news."

Except, apparently, in stubborn Garrett County.

Times education editor dies

Education lost one of its giants Monday. Fred M. Hechinger, former education editor of the New York Times, author of several books and hundreds of articles on education, foundation executive, founder of the Education Writers Association and conscience of the public schools, died in New York at 75.

In his last "About Education" column five years ago, Mr. Hechinger wrote:

"Should I have ignored the bad news -- about a system that deprives the many of joy reserved for the few? I tried to celebrate the islands of excellence, but I could not overlook the sea of neglect and apathy that threatened to wash over them."

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