Reality check

March 19, 2007

Even school districts that are generally performing well need to pause occasionally for a pulse reading. That's what Baltimore County has done by commissioning an outside audit that points to some important areas in need of attention, including monitoring and oversight by the school board and adequate teacher training. Having set this process in motion, district officials are obligated to make necessary improvements.

In Baltimore County, where parts of the school district fare better than others, and across the state, there is growing concern as the 2009 graduating class will be the first required to pass four high school assessment tests as a condition of receiving diplomas. Superintendent Joe A. Hairston tried to stay ahead of the curve and spotlight other concerns by enlisting a neutral auditing team from Phi Delta Kappa International to tell the system where it's falling short.

The auditors' report, which was presented to the school board last week, focused heavily on curriculum issues. Although considered adequate in core subjects such as language arts, math and science, the curriculum was found wanting in other areas, such as criminal justice and human growth and development.

Most important, the auditors pointed to a void in the overall management and control of the entire curriculum - who's in charge? - and a lack of coordination as the curriculum progressed from a written tool to a teacher's guide and finally to specific material on which students are tested. Inadequate teacher training and evaluation as well as ineffective monitoring of student progress, inadequate supervision by the school board and an insufficient match of budget dollars to curriculum and training needs were also cited as areas to be addressed. And despite the county's success in narrowing the achievement gap between minority and white students, the auditors gloomily predicted that closing it would likely take another 50 years.

These findings make it impossible for top school officials to feel complacent. Mr. Hairston has started to address some of the report's recommendations, recently hiring an associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction who will serve as chief academic officer. He and his top administrators, together with the board, also will have to determine how to beef up teacher training and how best to address continuing disparities in facilities and in academic performance across the district. Having invited outsiders to take a hard, honest look, Mr. Hairston and his colleagues need to fix what's broken.

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