Spreading accountability around

March 08, 1998|By Sara Engram

IT took years of laying the groundwork, but the conversation about education in Maryland is heading in a promising direction. Instead of a debate centering on funding, this state has succeeded in adding a crucial word to the discussion -- accountability.

Last year's partnership agreement between Baltimore and the state was based on the notion that increasing the school system's level of accountability for student achievement was a fair exchange for more funding.

With that precedent, it becomes more difficult to hand out aid packages to school systems without the notion of accountability as part of the equation. Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to increase funding for Prince George's County schools is a case in point.

On the failing role

Like Baltimore, Prince George's schools enroll large numbers of children from low-income households. Although the city continues to have far more schools on the state's list of failing schools, nine Prince George's schools appeared on this year's list.

The governor's announcement of a $300 million aid package to Prince George's County schools is somewhat deceptive, because most of that money would be coming to the county anyway.

But the offer was enough to spur agreement last week on a court settlement that could end a quarter-century of busing designed to desegregate the county's schools. It is significant that all parties to the lawsuit have also endorsed provisions of the settlement designed to increase the system's accountability for the performance of its schools.

It's easy to see why many states haven't yet succeeded in establishing measures for holding schools accountable for student achievement. As Baltimore well knows, documenting failure can be painfully embarrassing.

But unless a school system knows where it stands, it can't determine how to get where it wants to be.

That principle seems to be firmly in place for Maryland's elementary and secondary schools. The challenge now is to extend the concept of accountability to the schools of education that are training the majority of teachers for the state's schools.

After all, if elementary and secondary teachers are entering the profession without thorough training, their weaknesses as teachers will be reflected in their students' performance. Those students will suffer -- and so will their schools, as they fail to score well on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests and other measures for holding them accountable.

The next big fight in school reform is likely to center on requirements for teacher certification -- including proposals for more courses in reading instruction, and even proposals to track the success of graduates of teacher-preparation programs in Maryland's colleges and universities.

The State Board of Education has mapped out an ambitious program for redesigning teacher education in Maryland. We can expect fierce resistance as these proposals are put into place.

Teaching the teachers

But if the status quo for our public schools wasn't good enough, why should we assume that programs that trained the teachers for those schools don't need retooling too?

In a state that has demonstrated the importance of accountability for school reform, it's hard to argue that it should stop at the high school level. Accountability never comes without a cost. But as local school systems are learning, significant improvement doesn't come without accountability.

Sara Engram is a deputy editorial page editor for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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