Focusing on education amid political turmoil

The Education Beat

Dispute: Donald N. Langenberg, under fire from the governor and the comptroller, says his job, far from `cushy,' keeps him busy trying to improve the teaching of high school science.

October 01, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE TWO letters to The Sun that got Donald N. Langenberg in hot water with Maryland's governor and comptroller were three and five sentences long. Langenberg says it took him eight minutes to write the letters, both of which sharply criticized Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s state budget cuts that resulted in steep tuition increases in the University System of Maryland.

And Langenberg's not sorry he did it, not by a long shot. Since Ehrlich publicly suggested that Langenberg be fired from his $110,000 nonteaching university job -- and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (never a fan of Langenberg's when the latter was system chancellor) agreed -- Langenberg has been flooded with supportive mail, phone calls and e-mails.

The threat from Maryland's two most powerful political figures was featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is read by college and university people everywhere, and in several newspapers. Ehrlich and Schaefer have made a First Amendment hero of Langenberg, proving again that the pen is mightier than the sword.

Last week, I asked Langenberg how he's earning that $110,000 as a "regents professor of education, K-16," a job said to have been created to ease his way into a reluctant retirement. It's a "cushy" job, critics say, that he could do with one hand tied and without having to leave his Queenstown home (or Baltimore apartment).

Langenberg, not surprisingly, sees it differently, and he's neither apologetic nor defensive. At 71, he says he's working harder than ever, coordinating a $7.5 million, five-year program funded by the National Science Foundation that is designed to improve the learning and teaching of high school science.

The K-16 part of his title is key, Langenberg says. "I may be the only professor in the country with a number in my title." For years, Langenberg has been a national leader in a move to build bridges between two nearly total strangers, higher education and elementary-secondary education. They're like two roads approaching a river with no span.

For example, Langenberg says, many college professors know very little about teaching, and many high school teachers know little about scientific research. The twain seldom meet, formally or informally, even though the teaching of high school science is very much like the teaching of science in college.

It's just as well that he's not teaching in this job, says Langenberg, a tenured physics and electrical engineering professor at the University of Maryland, College Park (another reason he can't be fired). "I don't have the nerve to teach physics. I'd do it badly."

What Langenberg is doing in his new job is establishing partnerships between science teachers in Montgomery County -- eventually, all 350 will be reached -- and groups of college science professors on several university system campuses.

The goal is to improve science teaching in both high schools and colleges. Ultimately, it's to raise the capabilities of Montgomery science teachers and to improve the school performance of county students.

Is that worth $110,000 of federal money? Maybe not, but Langenberg can reach more people and have a greater impact in this job than in teaching a couple of sections of quantum physics a week.

Miss Maryland won fans with her strong stance

If you had electricity and were tuned to the Miss America pageant a week ago Saturday, yes, those were boos you heard when Miss Maryland, Marina Harrison, was announced as the third runner-up and the audience realized she would not win. The eventual winner was Ericka Dunlap of Orlando, Fla.

People who were inside the Atlantic City auditorium said the 22-year-old Severn resident and University of Maryland, College Park graduate became a crowd favorite when she articulately opposed school vouchers in the question-and-answer session for Miss America finalists.

Wading into such a political thicket with a controversial viewpoint is highly unusual. The typical finalist takes the safe street, vowing to "devote my life to the betterment of children in poverty." Not Harrison. A student and voting member of the Anne Arundel school board in 1998-1999 whose mother is an Anne Arundel County middle school special-education teacher, Harrison had given the matter much thought and had gone to Atlantic City with public education as her platform.

"I just went ahead and said what I thought," Harrison said last week. "You're allowed to express opinions."

Harrison, a public relations major at College Park, said she'll use the $25,000 scholarship she won for fourth place to pursue a master's degree in marketing. She also won $2,000 in the casual wear segment.

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