Slow but steady adds up to school reform

September 21, 1997|By Sara Engram

WHEN WHITE HOUSE officials wanted a convenient place for President Clinton and Vice President Gore to showcase high standards, accountability and other elements of school reform, they had an easy choice -- Maryland.

With its steady course through rocky political waters, Maryland has proved that it is possible to craft a vision and hold to it -- a goal that has eluded many other states. So when Congress was debating proposals for national testing earlier this month and the president and vice president wanted to visit schools to highlight the issue, they headed twice to Maryland, not Virginia.

In the school-reform game, Maryland has some built-in advantages. One of the most important is continuity in political leadership. Virginia governors cannot succeed themselves, so the state automatically gets an overhaul in leadership every four years. But school reform takes more than four years, and tweaking the vision, as new governors are tempted to do, can easily knock the process off track.

Maryland has another advantage: Unlike states that have hundreds of school systems and school boards to contend with, Maryland has a relatively simple set-up of 24 local jurisdictions, 23 counties and Baltimore city.

It also has something less tangible -- a widely held belief that effective schools are essential to the health and prosperity of the state. In recent years, the business community has been especially important in keeping politicians focused on good schools as a critical ingredient in economic prosperity.

For most observers of Maryland's reform odyssey, a defining moment came in 1989 with the release of a report examining Maryland's schools and proposals for changes drawn up by a commission appointed by former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and chaired by Walter Sondheim.

The Sondheim commission was remarkable in many ways, including the clarity of its vision and the collegiality and dedication of its participants. But its most telling feature becomes even more obvious as time passes.

Most such reports have a short shelf life, if they are ever read at all. But thumb through the Sondheim report today and you will be struck with how much of its substance has actually taken root. Eight years later, many of its recommendations are taken for granted.

No doubt Mr. Sondheim's wise leadership was a key element in producing a relatively short (32 pages) report devoid of opaque educational jargon, but he downplays his role with typical modesty. Yet even this self-effacing veteran of dozens of such commissions takes pride in re-reading the report.

'Substantive stuff'

''It's substantive stuff,'' he says. ''It was my first association with something that hasn't gathered dust.''

He still praises the commission members and staff, and notes with pride that throughout the two-year effort, the commission never took a vote. It wasn't necessary; the commissioners reached consensus without a show of hands. That unanimity gave the Sondheim report even more credibility.

The commission's most visible legacy is the Maryland School Performance Assessment Tests, taken by third-, fifth- and eighth-graders to determine how well their schools are teaching them reading, math, reasoning and other essential skills.

The MSPAP effort reflects the core message of the Sondheim report -- the need to hold schools accountable for their performance. Unlike most standardized tests, MSPAP evaluates schools, not individual students.

That aspect of the program has made some parents unhappy and, as Mr. Sondheim notes, there are good arguments for letting parents know how their children performed. State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is looking at ways to do that without violating test security.

The Sondheim report may not be a perfect document, but its continued relevance ought to stand as a touchstone -- not just for school reform in Maryland, but also for every appointed commission that is tempted to hide its lack of clarity and consensus behind a jumble of jargon.

School reform in Maryland has come a long way in the eight years since the Sondheim report appeared. The process hasn't been easy; neither has it been particularly dramatic -- until you realize how quickly steady, determined progress adds up. As this month's presidential and vice-presidential visits illustrate, Maryland is showing that the impossible dream of school reform may not be so impossible after all.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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