School board weighs overhaul's cost, timing

Audit raises concerns, but priorities are an issue

March 21, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,sun reporter

Baltimore County school board members raised concerns last night about funding, timing and priorities as they began sifting through nearly a dozen recommendations from an independent audit that suggests overhauling many of the system's educational policies, plans and strategies.

While their consensus was that the board should act swiftly, they had a harder time deciding what their immediate next step should be.

Several members stressed the need to improve school facilities, which auditors described in their report as deplorable. Others pointed to items higher on the list of recommendations that deal more directly with curriculum, such as hiring a chief academic officer and revamping the way the system determines what children must learn and how it will be taught.

"When we talk about maintaining a safe and orderly learning environment, we define that as being one of our primary responsibilities," said board member John A. Hayden III, who added that auditors pointed out hazardous conditions in several schools. "This particular [finding] is troublesome. I very strongly encourage that we move to address that issue immediately."

Member Meg O'Hare said other items that appear higher on the auditors' prioritized list of recommendations would be more realistic to quickly address, because they don't require an infusion of money - such as expecting greater collaboration among employees who oversee curriculum development, teacher training and program assessment.

"Safety issues are simply unacceptable," she said, adding that "some of the things require a culture change, not more money."

The unprecedented independent audit, compiled in a 423-page report released last week, found that teachers are inundated with new programs but given little direction, and many schools are in disrepair. It also concluded that no one was in charge of overseeing curriculum management, a critical function that includes determining what will be taught and when, ensuring that teachers have the necessary training and tools and evaluating programs.

The recommendations urge school officials to do a better job of evaluating whether new academic programs are working for students, training teachers to make classes more engaging and ensuring that children have equal access to programs and services.

Fenwick English, a lead auditor who oversaw Baltimore County's project, said last week that the recommendations could take up to five years to implement across the state's third-largest school system.

With about 106,000 students, the county's schools range from those internationally known for high performance to others that struggle to meet state test standards. And while the achievement gap - the difference between how whites and minorities perform on the state tests - is narrowing, the audit team estimated it could take 50 years to close the gap in some academic areas, if no changes are made.

To help close the achievement gap, auditors recommended devising a system that ensures students have equal access to comparable programs and services, such as special-education, gifted and talented, and Advanced Placement courses. Auditors said many students are limited in their access to highly qualified and experienced teachers, magnet programs and participation in AP courses, depending on where they live.

In response to complaints that new programs are haphazardly introduced, the audit recommends that the school system centralize professional development and routinely evaluate teacher training. It also stressed the need to improve the evaluation of students' progress so teaching strategies can be adjusted.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Baltimore County teachers union, said the audit confirmed many of the concerns that she and other teachers have pressed for years.

"We've been saying for probably eight years that curriculum is just coming at us," Bost said in a recent interview.

She said she hopes school officials will consult with teachers as they work toward implementing the audit's recommendations, especially since many of the changes are likely to affect how and what teachers are expected to do.

Auditors - who visited 157 schools, including more than 3,000 classrooms - said they found instruction to be relatively static, with most teachers favoring the "less effective lecture format with students engaged primarily in listening, taking notes, and completing worksheets," despite county and state guidelines that call for a variety of teaching strategies, according to the audit. The team said it saw few instances of hands-on projects and activities.

At Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's recommendation, the county school board awarded a $245,000 audit contract to Phi Delta Kappa International, a nonprofit group that has reviewed curriculum management in school systems across the country and abroad for nearly three decades.

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