Uniform teaching program advances

Panel, national group recommend statewide curriculum for Md.

A call for `consistency'

October 02, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland took a giant step forward yesterday toward creating a statewide curriculum specifically spelling out what's to be taught in every public school classroom.

That would represent a marked shift for education policy in Maryland, where teachers, parents, principals and superintendents have spent decades clinging to their local authority over classroom instruction.

A state panel examining Maryland's decade of education changes and a national education reform group made preliminary recommendations to the state superintendent yesterday calling a statewide curriculum critical for schools to improve.

"At a minimum, there is a set of curriculum tools that local districts can't develop on their own and should not develop 24 times over," said Michael Cohen, a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute and former assistant U.S. secretary of education. "It is clear that the state in some fashion or another needs to create a curriculum to be made available to every district."

Cohen is leading a subcommittee of the Maryland Visionary Panel for Better Schools, a 40-member panel of educators, business leaders, politicians, teachers and parents appointed by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. The group is scheduled to make recommendations early next year that are to serve as the blueprint for statewide changes in schools over the next 10 years.

And it was clear from yesterday's meeting that support is strong for a statewide curriculum - even among school board members, superintendents and teachers who for decades have vigorously fought for local control.

"Five years ago, you would have seen us fighting the idea of a state curriculum," said Lorraine A. Costella, superintendent of Kent County and president of the state superintendents association.

But with testing taking on a greater role in schools these days, Costella said, national education groups have been moving in that direction. "If we're all being judged by the same tests," she said, "then we need more consistency."

Panel members and state education officials emphasized that a state curriculum wouldn't be so precise as to require all third-grade teachers to teach the same math lesson on the same day - as, for example, Japan's national curriculum proscribes. They said it probably would allow enough flexibility for teachers and school systems to use their own ideas, too.

But a statewide curriculum would be far more specific than the state's "content standards" and "learning outcomes" for certain grades. Those set benchmarks for what pupils ought to have learned, such as that children leaving third grade should be able to recognize and identify all upper- and lower-case letters.

"This would be a big step for Maryland," Grasmick said. "It shows how much this state has changed that so many people are welcoming of the idea."

Maryland wouldn't be the first to issue a state curriculum. But when combined with its testing program, the state would continue its push toward the forefront of national education reform, education experts said.

"There have been some bold, dramatic actions taken in Maryland that other states have not been able to take," said Matt Gandal, vice president of Achieve, Inc., a national education reform group studying the state. "This is not about state control, but about state responbility."

Some panel members suggested that a statewide curriculum might be mandatory only for low-performing schools or systems. But for new teachers or those who are struggling, it also could be a way to ensure their instruction covers the topics on the state exams.

"The reality is in every profession ... mediocrity exists," said Cynthia Kuncl, senior vice president of Bank of America and a member of the state panel. "You need to have a standard to ensure success because this is about the students."

Assuming the state panel moves forward with its recommendation for a statewide curriculum, it would require approval from the state school board and then might take as long as two or three years to develop, state officials said.

Yesterday's meeting included preliminary recommendations from seven panel subcommittees studying such issues as testing, leadership, learning, teacher quality and the minority achievement gap as well as a report from Achieve - the bipartisan group organizing next week's National Education Summit in New York.

Support was strong for the continuation of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests of all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, as well as the development of rigorous end-of- course high school exams in such subjects as algebra, biology, English and U.S. government.

But Achieve called on Maryland to also develop testing for grades four, six and seven as well as to change the state's exams to permit all parents to learn their children's individual scores.

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