IT'S BEEN a while since I read the critical report on county middle schools, but I wondered at the time whether the authors were referring to Howard County, Md., or to some parallel county that isn't regarded as having the state's top school system.
Whether Howard County is No. 1 in the state is debatable. High standardized test scores alone do not merit that honor. But the Middle School Review Committee's report read like an 18-month evaluation of the No. 24 system.
Even those who don't believe the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests accurately measure achievement can't think the exam is that skewed.
My basic complaint against the critics is that the committee exaggerated the depth of problems in county middle schools. The committee deserves praise for pinpointing distressing trends, but I maintain the report's tone is excessively harsh and lacks context.
For sure, Howard's school system can stand improvement -- some eighth-grade MSPAP scores slipped last year, but it enjoys advantages not common to the majority of public systems in the country. The community's affluence is its foremost asset. A new report on Howard's economic condition says the average price of a single-family home is $230,000. Per capita income remains the state's highest. Howard families' financial resources and the value they place on education give the county school system a running start.
Public schools here also have benefited from years of largess from county government during the bustling 1980s.
Perhaps Howard County public schools could function better, but neither the citizens committee nor consultants who wrote a separate portion of the middle school report named a better model.
Unlike the consultants, however, the committee did not acknowledge the relatively high standard of public education in Howard before raising criticism.
Despite its shock-provoking approach, the 16-member committee did a commendable job of researching and writing its portion of the two-part evaluation. Now it is up to the school system to take the findings and recommendations seriously.
Two committee members, Francine Wishnick and Deborah M. Schultz, were dissatisfied with the school system's early response to their effort. They had expected administrators and school board members to debrief them. "We had hoped that after we released the report that there would be debates," says Ms. Wishnick, who ran unsuccessfully this year for the county's school board. "We thought it would be fiery."
Moreover, they had hoped to continue to be part of the process of improving middle schools. They want to grab the school system by the collar and ensure that lower-achieving schools have the resources and standards they need to perform as well (( as higher-achieving ones. They want to remain involved to help improve academic performance, teacher accountability and discipline.
"Three-fourths of the people who worked on this report to the end still want to be actively involved," insists Ms. Schultz. "We want to see through these recommendations, whether they are adopted or discarded."
I admire the committee members' diligence. Although their voices should continue to be heard, their job is done. It is time for the newly-appointed committee of school staff members to sort through the report's findings and recommendations.
These school administrators may never convince the citizens group that it will address their most fundamental concerns, but their issues will be far too serious to ignore.
Patti Caplan, the schools spokeswoman, says officials showed good faith by agreeing to eliminate their "middle schools philosophy" and encouraging more academic competition in response to the committee's criticism that officials placed more emphasis on self-esteem than on academics. She says it will take time to deal with other issues; the staff committee has 125 recommendations to discuss.
Ms. Caplan says Schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey "has indicated very strongly that he will respond to each one. Nothing will go unaddressed."
One of the most disturbing findings this staff committee must confront is the middle school system's policy on retention. According to the report, students are promoted through middle school, even when their performance suggests failure in certain subjects. If students can benefit from another year mastering difficult subjects, they should get the needed instruction before the problem deepens in high school.
The citizens committee also has raised critical questions about grouping, the Gifted and Talented Program and the Black Student Achievement Program in middle schools.
Ms. Caplan says the committee is "sort of like having an independent counsel come in. We wanted to get a critical eye, and we did."
This independent counsel was zealous, and its tone was often accusatory, but it performed a job that needed to be done.
Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.
Pub Date: 1/05/97