Some wishes for new year


2004: The list includes more respect for teachers, rethinking of an exit test, and a happy retirement for a six-decade educator.

December 31, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

AS tempus fugits and we step gingerly into 2004, here are a few wishes for education in Maryland:

That teachers would regain some of the respect they've lost over the past decades. Teaching is one of the toughest jobs on earth, yet few on the outside understand a teacher's professional life. Teachers feel they've been made scapegoats. When test scores go down, they get the blame. When test scores go up, the superintendent takes credit.

Public Agenda, a nonpartisan policy research group, polled the nation's teachers. How do they feel? "Passionate about their profession, but unnerved and angered by expectations they consider unrealistic. At the mercy of administrators they don't trust, students who won't try and parents who just don't care."

Salaries that reflect the importance and complexity of the job wouldn't hurt, but poll after poll finds teachers don't enter the profession to become wealthy. Most in the Public Agenda poll said they loved their jobs, but 59 percent said they were unfairly being held accountable for raising student achievement when so much that affects learning is beyond their control.

That Maryland school officials would rethink preliminary plans for high-school exit testing. A proposed second-tier diploma for students who can't pass all four tests will inevitably be considered tainted and second-class.

Even before the tests become "official," there's plenty of tension in the schools. Some teachers maintain that there's already considerable stress on teachers and students in the courses that are being tested.

That school systems would obey the law and provide appropriate education to students with disabilities. Typically, we get occasional complaints from frustrated parents, but this has been a record year for unhappiness. Students with autism, dyslexia and other language-related disorders seem to be particularly underserved.

Parents shouldn't have to hire lawyers and fight their way through the bureaucracy to obtain the services to which their children are legally entitled in one of the nation's richest states. Nor should they have to pay private-school tuition of $20,000 or more because the free public schools can't or won't do the job.

That all of the parties would get on the same page in Maryland's $66 million, multiyear reading initiative.

Maryland is getting the money from the federal government under the Reading First program, a part of the No Child Left Behind legislation. But the state's plan (rejected in its first versions for a lack of substance) requires the systematic teaching of phonics, the association of letters with the speech sounds they represent.

That was too much for a pair of professors from Towson University and the University of Maryland, College Park, who blasted Reading First, one calling it an attempt to de-professionalize teaching.

If others join the professors and essentially boycott a program required by the state Board of Education, we could be in for a nasty standoff. But that's not likely to happen. The old order is passing in reading education. The new order wants to know and understand the science of reading.

That Robert O. Bonnell Jr. find continued success in his 18th year as head of the Lake Clifton-Eastern Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). Baltimore's version of New York philanthropist Eugene M. Lang's "I Have a Dream" program, the EOP guarantees college scholarships to students who stay in school and keep their grades up.

Quietly -- while surviving the mayhem of city high school reorganization -- the program is doing well. Of those students who began 10 years ago, 61 percent graduated this year, and another 20 percent were in school. Eighty-two percent of the Class of 2004 are in school, as are 97 percent of the Class of 2005.

Bonnell, 78, reported the news to his "mentor," Lang, now retired at age 84.

Just before Christmas, Bonnell got a congratulatory note -- along with $1,000. The donation, Lang wrote, "bears appropriate testimony to my warm sentiment."

That John S. Toll, president of Washington College, have a long and happy retirement when he leaves the Chestertown campus next summer after six decades in higher education. Toll, who turned 80 in October, is an unpretentious and enthusiastic man, a physicist by training who has headed private and public colleges and was the first head of what is now the University System of Maryland.

When I met him in 1966, he was in his first presidency at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and courting his soon-to-be wife, Debbie. When the two married, my newspaper carried a headline: "For Whom the Belle Tolls." The paper was soon out of business.

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