Firming up the school system's middle Howard County: MSPAP results affirmed strengths, but also middle school weaknesses.

December 17, 1997

TO OUTSIDERS, the Howard County school system is a gem of public education. Its percentage of graduates who go on to college is the highest in Maryland. Its SAT scores and spending per pupil are second, just behind neighboring (and also prestigous) Montgomery County.

This image was polished some more by the latest Maryland School Performance Assessment Program results. Howard students as a group again placed ahead of their peers. Noteworthy is the fact that the county's scores rose slightly as the system is becoming more racially and culturally diverse.

One sore point: Falling scores among eighth-graders underscore problems that were flagged in a report by parents and educators that was critical of the Howard middle schools. It pointed out weaknesses in academic achievement, discipline and teacher accountability.

The evaluation concluded that Howard must do a better job preparing sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders for high school. The report spurred a contentious, but productive, debate on questions such as whether schools have gone overboard in focusing on student "self-esteem" and whether arts education should be replaced with more academic subjects.

As a result, the school board adopted a 10-point plan recommended by Superintendent Michael E. Hickey that includes major changes in some areas, finetuning in others. Fortunately, the board rejected Dr. Hickey's suggestion to reduce time for music and arts education.

These subjects add discipline and creativity to the middle school experience. The superintendent, whose wife happens to be an artist, suggested less time for fine arts to add time for math, science, English and social studies.

The approved plan achieves increased class time through less draconian means. More middle schools may consider the four-period day used by most county high schools to save minutes between classes. A new discipline policy aims to get tougher with misbehaving students.

Improvements in staff development and grading, and revision of the gifted and talented program are also in the works. The process of making middle schools better, however, is far from over. It will take close monitoring to ensure that a strong school system does not get flabby in the middle.

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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