Maryland schools need to shift attention from testing to teaching, a state panel said yesterday in proposing tough new measures to strengthen classroom instruction.
"We must dramatically accelerate student achievement," said the final report of the Visionary Panel for Better Schools, a 40-member body of education, business and community leaders charged with fashioning a blueprint for education reform in the state over the next decade.
Among the panel's major recommendations:
The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program should be extensively revised to express the performance of individual pupils as well as schools, making it easier for teachers to tailor instruction. At present, schools, rather than individual pupils, are graded by the MSPAP tests.
A statewide curriculum should specify what students need to know and be able to do in each subject and every grade level. The curriculum would be optional for Maryland's 24 districts, and participating systems would have to align the curriculum that they provide to teachers with the state curriculum.
Business managers should be hired in each school to free principals to pay more attention to instruction.
High-performing schools should receive as much state scrutiny as low-performing schools do. If wealthier suburban schools did not improve steadily, they would be publicly identified and offered help. "No school, no teacher, should be allowed to rest on their laurels," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state schools superintendent, who appointed the panel less than a year ago.
The state should certify only those teachers who can "demonstrate high levels of knowledge and teaching skills." The panel offered several suggestions for recruiting qualified teachers at a time when Maryland faces severe shortages. Among them: "high-powered" hiring incentives and increased pay.
No cost was put on the panel's recommendations, but several members at the group's final meeting at a Baltimore hotel said the report coincides with that of the Thornton Commission, another state panel that is recommending Maryland spend $1.1 billion more on public schools to meet its constitutional commitment to funding schools in different jurisdictions more equally.
"Thornton tells us how much money we need," said John F. "Jack" Jennings, co-chairman of the panel. "Our report tells us how it should be spent."
The report also coincides with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law last week by President Bush. Many of the Visionary Panel's recommendations would bring Maryland into line with the federal law. The new law requires individual testing in reading and math in grades three through eight, and it requires yearly report cards from each school.
"The federal legislation gives the federal government an unprecedented role in local education," said Grasmick, "and we're going to have to be ready for it with our assessments and our close monitoring of every child."
The panel's recommendations for improving teacher quality would be among the most difficult to implement, the superintendent said. Schools of education were slow to respond to a 1995 "redesign" of teacher education, Grasmick said. "This time, they're going to have to move, and move quickly. I'm not going to be tentative about that."
The panel's report requires approval by the state Board of Education this month, but many of the recommendations would have to be funded by the state legislature and governor. Grasmick told panel members she intends to hold regional hearings on the recommendations in the spring and develop an "action plan" that would go into effect in June.
The recommendations were praised by Patricia A. Foerster, president of the 55,000-member Maryland State Teachers Association, who was a member of the panel.
But Foerster said, "I have caution running through my head" about statewide curriculum. "I hope this won't become a maximum. There has to be latitude in every classroom. ... It's a long way from this table, folks, to the classroom where the real work is going on."
The state also released yesterday an independent report from Achieve Inc., a nonpartisan organization based in Washington that studies state education reforms. Calling Maryland "among the nation's leading education reform states," Achieve made a number of proposals, many of them similar to those made by the Visionary Panel.
For example, Achieve called for "transparency" in MSPAP, saying the test "should not be a state secret."
The Visionary Panel report is the first major look at Maryland school reform since the Sondheim Commission launched MSPAP in 1989. Walter Sondheim chaired that panel and was a member of the group that reported yesterday.