Board members urge action on school audit

Outdated policies need updating, public agrees

March 14, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,sun reporter

Although an expert's report lays out a two- to five-year timetable, Baltimore County school board members said last night that children and teachers can't wait that long for changes recommended in an audit of the system's education programs.

"We don't have five years. We don't have five months," said board member Warren Hayman. "We have to take the posture that time is of the essence to meet all the recommendations. ... We need to change the culture of the system. Until we change the culture, we are just spinning our wheels."

Last weekend, board members received copies of the audit, a 423-page document that was publicly released at last night's meeting.

Auditors found that a lack of oversight and teacher training have undermined academic progress in Baltimore County schools, according to an unprecedented, independent review that found a breakdown between what children need to learn and what is being taught.

Among more than two dozen major findings, auditors said teachers are inundated with new programs, but receive little guidance on how to use them, and many schools are in disrepair. It also found that "no one is `in control'" of curriculum management - a critical function that includes determining what will be taught and when, ensuring that teachers have the necessary training and tools and measuring whether programs are working before adding new ones.

But some of the team's sharpest criticism was directed at the school board and its policies, which it said "are outdated and inadequate to guide the work of the system."

Of about 280 board policies that the team reviewed, nearly half are more than 25 years old and do little to help shape the educational priorities for the third-largest school system in the state and one of the 25 largest in the nation, according to the audit.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's Blueprint for Progress provides direction, but the school board "has neglected its legal responsibility to provide district governance," the audit states.

"The planning we saw was probably the best I've seen in the country," Fenwick English, a lead auditor with Phi Delta Kappa International who has overseen about 60 curriculum audits since 1979, said in an interview this week. "But the board is legally the only body that can institutionalize good practice. And if you have a new board or a new superintendent who doesn't want to use the Blueprint for Progress, they don't have to, if you haven't incorporated that good practice."

The school board began reviewing its policies a few years ago to update those worth keeping and eliminate ineffective ones, Donald L. Arnold, the school board's president, said in an interview Monday after reviewing the audit. The board's goal is that all policies will be reviewed at least every five years, he said.

"This is a process that we'll use to improve our school system," Arnold said during the meeting. "It's not a silver bullet. And it's not something that's going to happen overnight. ... It provides a road map so that we'll be able to go forward."

Arnold said one of the board's next steps is to act on the superintendent's recommendations based on the audit. In an interview Monday, Hairston said he is developing an action plan, which he expects to compile by June.

Cheryl Bost, president of the county teachers union, said the audit echoed many of the concerns that teachers have pressed for many years about frequent changes in the curriculum. "For teachers, we have to master it before we can teach it," Bost said last night.

Jonathan Schwartz, a parent with a daughter in second grade at Chatsworth Elementary School, said the audit supported teacher complaints that they have too much on their plates and he was hopeful school officials will use its recommendations to allow teachers to do their jobs more effectively.

"I think the board took it the right way. It's a challenge, not a criticism," Schwartz said.

The county school board last summer approved a $245,000 contract with Phi Delta Kappa, a nonprofit organization that has reviewed curriculum management in systems across the country and abroad for nearly three decades.

A team of 26 auditors spent a week in December visiting 157 schools, including more than 3,000 classrooms, and interviewing parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders. They also analyzed information that directly and indirectly affects curriculum and instruction, including planning guides, budgets and policies.

The team's report is called an "exception report," which means it's designed to point out weaknesses. The executive summary of the audit was expected to be available online at

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