Looking past Md.'s top marks Despite wide praise, state education officials have failings that must be fixed

January 18, 1998|By KALMAN R. HETTLEMAN

The Maryland State Board of Education and Department of Education are grading just about everybody these days: students, individual schools and entire school systems. Last year, state educators won a fight in the General Assembly to overhaul the Baltimore City system. This year it's Prince George's turn to try and rebut the failing marks given it by the state department (MSDE).

But who's grading the state education establishment?

Judging from the media, that's nothing to worry about. President Clinton says "call Maryland" to find out how to go about education reform. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley says Maryland is "a leader in the national crusade for education."

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, state board member Walter Sondheim and state political leader Del. Howard P. Rawlings are The Sun's Mary

landers of the Year for their education leadership.

Indeed, Maryland has been near the top of the class among the states for the past two decades, with former state Superintendent David W. Hornbeck and former board President Robert C. Embry Jr. blazing the trail.

Expectations have been raised through standardized tests, stiffer graduation requirements and most recently the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), which set high standards for individual schools and local districts and holds them accountable. MSPAP and Scholastic Aptitude Test scores are inching up, high-stakes high school exit exams are near completion and reform of the city school system is coming along. Grasmick is probably peerless among state education chiefs in her combination of up-through-the-ranks knowledge, ardent commitment and political prowess.

Yet, there are other less visible signs that Maryland's educational cup is not only not brimming over, it's partially empty. Consider:

* MSDE gets low grades for the quality of its academic standards according to authoritative annual studies by the American Federation of Teachers. The content of the standards is generally described as weak and vague, and there is little targeted assistance for low-scoring students and schools.

* The National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, in a 1996 report, listed Maryland as meeting only one of 10 "quality of teaching indicators." Maryland ranked near the bottom on measures such as unqualified hires, teachers teaching out of their field and lack of accredited teacher education programs. It was only after The Sun "Reading by 9" series that MSDE started to push for more extensive teacher education in reading.

* Over the years, MSDE has done very little to promote research-tested "best instructional practices." In the course of trying to "reconstitute" failing schools, the state almost invariably tells local educators what they're doing wrong without much guidance on what to do right. Again, it apparently took the "Reading by 9" articles to spur the state to say that it would promote research-proven phonics-based early reading instruction.

* On funding for education, Maryland ranks well below average among the states in state aid relative to state wealth. According to the most recent available data, Maryland has the second-highest class sizes in the country. Worse, our state's school funding has recently departed more from principles of equity and become more politicized than probably anywhere in the country. Even taking into consideration last year's limited aid to city schools, this year's likely legislative package - supported by the governor, legislative leaders and state education officials - is an unequalizing and unprincipled election year pay-off to suburban counties.

* Even the rising student achievement shown in MSPAP results is open to question. Most Maryland teachers attribute higher MSPAP scores to teachers getting better at preparing students for the test - not improved student learning, according to a RAND study, released last year. Maryland students fare much better in MSPAP scores than they do in the nationally standardized and credible National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

Over the past two years, Education Week, in its thorough "Report Card" on the condition of public education in the 50 states, has cited many of these deficiencies in giving Maryland several poor grades.

To return to the good news, state educators are striving to improve on many fronts. Academic standards are in the process of being upgraded, notably the new high school core learning goals. Teacher education, certification and training reforms are in the works. And the high school exit exams are to be linked to the provision of remedial help for failing students.

Yet, the full picture of the state's performance is still not as shiny as usually portrayed. What lies behind this? Why does Maryland, a national leader, come up so short in so many ways?

The root cause is that state education agencies (SEAs) across the country have major hidden failings.

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