Keys to reform

July 28, 1998|By Nancy S. Grasmick

MEANINGFUL, sustained school reform does not happen by fits and starts. Nor do discrete strategies, however valid, cumulatively make a cohesive plan. Meaningful school reform takes not only a common vision but also the research, expertise and dollars to build it.

In an opinion piece published in The Sun this month, writer Kalman Hettleman asked tough questions about the costs and efficacy of school reform for disadvantaged students -- those most at risk of failure. The call to action on behalf of these most vulnerable students has not gone unheard.

Ensuring an exceptional education for at-risk students requires a complex tapestry of research-proven strategies, money allocated for specific programs and programs tailored for individual students -- backed by real accountability at all levels of education.

State review

Last year, a task force reviewed the state's public school programs to determine if inequities or gaps existed in funding programs for at-risk students. The result was the School Accountability Funding for Excellence Program, or SAFE, which provides additional state money for programs serving disadvantaged students. The SAFE bill provides $61.5 million for five years. That state program is conducted in coordination with other programs serving at-risk students such as the federal Title I.

Such comprehensive planning reduces the fragmentation and duplication that inevitably accompany plans developed in isolation. It allows resources to be targeted more effectively and used more efficiently. Also, it uses demographic and performance data to get a more accurate picture of student needs.

The U.S. government, too, recognizes the value of comprehensive school reform based on well-researched and well-documented practices.

The Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program, or CSRD, provides $145 million to schools -- $120 million of which goes to those with large numbers of poor children -- that have cohesive schoolwide improvements, not piecemeal add-ons or quick-fixes. Maryland was one of the first states to be awarded such funds -- $2.1 million to be distributed among schools through competitive grants this year.

SAFE schools must have a specific plan for improving curriculum and instruction, ways to increase parental involvement and effective, continuing professional development for teachers and administrators -- things that reliably predict student success. While each is important alone, none holds a candle to what they accomplish collectively.

However, we know that even the most visionary strategic planning, the very best training and the most comprehensive and integrated reforms cannot truly ensure academic success for every student. We must reach students early and identify those who will need tutoring and other help.

That's why the state department of education is working with the Pew Forum, a group of top education experts brought together by the Pew Charitable Trust to consult with schools nationwide developing programs to help at-risk students. These experts -- currently working with only three other districts nationwide -- will help us identify and implement strategies that reduce barriers to learning and close the gaps that inevitably widen for students with each unchecked year.

These and many other efforts complement the state's initiative to require more reading course work for current and prospective teachers. The course work centers on teaching strategies that the best school-reform projects -- the same projects cited in CSRD legislation -- have proven effective. It is this course work that will drive the important instructional recommendations made by the state task force on reading.

If we can't make a commitment to this most fundamental effort, all the money in the world won't change our schools.

Reform, grounded in instruction, demands a tightly woven rTC network of training, funding, parental support and accountability to make it take hold. We have the vision for the successful school. It's time to see it fulfilled.

Nancy S. Grasmick is state superintendent of schools.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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