Independent study critical of schools

Many of the report's suggestions have already been heeded

To be released tomorrow

Urges narrowing of achievement gap for minority students

October 28, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school system isn't doing enough to narrow a lingering achievement gap between ethnic groups, has no centrally coordinated plan to affect student performance in low-performing schools and is behind in technology, compared with other systems, a study to be released tomorrow says.

In addition, principals in underachieving schools aren't held responsible for student performance, the report says, and teachers in those schools have less experience and quit or are transferred more often.

Those criticisms, as well as some commendations, are part of an expensive and much-criticized, long-awaited independent performance review, which will be released at a school district news conference tomorrow morning.

"It remains to be seen whether it's worth the money," Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said of the $250,000 assessment. "What we're going to do now is take the report and examine it. It's going to be my charge to take this report and squeeze the maximum benefit out of it as possible."

Drafts of the study have been circulating since summer, and O'Rourke already has made some of the changes it recommends.

The recommendations are "consistent with some of the changes I made," O'Rourke said last week.

For example, the report suggests that the superintendent consolidate all technology-related functions into one department.

In early July, O'Rourke announced that he was planning to do just that.

"We need to pull all areas of technology under one umbrella," he said at a July 5 school board meeting. "This idea of a distributed technology system, I don't believe, is serving us as well as it needs to."

The audit also criticizes the system for having "no position [with] responsibility for monitoring and reporting on achievement of system or school plans."

In May, however, O'Rourke promoted former Wilde Lake High School Principal Roger Plunkett to assistant superintendent for school administration - a new post responsible for overseeing all county schools, including school organization and management and the implementation of instructional programs.

In addition, the report "recommends a much stronger community-based approach for handling school redistricting than currently exists," which brings to mind the citizen-led Boundary Lines Advisory Committee that has been, for months, spearheading next year's high school redistricting.

O'Rourke commissioned that committee.

The cost of the performance audit is being shared equally by the school district and county government.

The review is intended to evaluate all aspects of the system, from salaries and hiring practices to building operations and students' academic performance.

Consultants contracted by Houston-based WCL Enterprises visited Howard schools and school administrative offices for months under a contract to produce a final report by the end of the last school year, with results originally scheduled to be released at the school board's June 26 meeting.

But early drafts of the report were criticized, and the final release was repeatedly delayed.

After tomorrow's news conference, the report is expected to be unveiled again at a 7:30 p.m. school board meeting.

In July, memos between the Howard County Council and a committee overseeing the review indicated that school and county leaders were unhappy with drafts of the report, calling them error-filled, incomplete and useless.

Some of the problems leaders mentioned included typographical and grammatical errors, logical inconsistencies, vague recommendations and circular reasoning.

The memos also suggested that early drafts of the report lacked a "priority emphasis" on the four goals the County Council and school officials hired the consultants to focus on.

O'Rourke said he would not comment on the report's contents until its release tomorrow. But he did say that staff members' perusals of the final report indicate that the consultants have gotten their focus right.

"I believe he [WCL head Bill Lenhart] has, based upon all the information I have," O'Rourke said. "I also believe that's the sense of the county government, although I won't speak for them."

O'Rourke said two questions remain: "How high is the quality? And how useful is it going to be to improve our performance overall?" O'Rourke said, "The answers to those questions remain to be seen."

Conclusions and recommendations in the final report are similar - sometimes identical - to those in drafts, but the new executive summary is organized differently and criticisms appear to be better substantiated by data or logical reasoning.

For example, the following statement is now accompanied by a chart showing composite test scores by ethnicity each year:

"While achievement levels of white students have increased significantly since the state of Maryland started standardized achievement testing in 1993, the achievement levels of African-American students have barely increased, and the achievement gap between these groups of students has widened."

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