Activists seek changes in schools curriculum

Department needs leadership change, they say

March 27, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN REPORTER

As Baltimore County school officials begin to make significant changes based upon a far-reaching audit of the system's educational plans, some local activists are pressing for an overhaul of the staff that directs what is being taught in classrooms.

Community leaders are calling for a makeover of the staffing in curriculum and instruction - a department of at least 200 employees who introduce and manage classroom programs.

"We need a fresh start, and that means necessary changes at the top," said Pat Ferguson, president of the county's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "I'm not going to name names, but they need to be replaced."

Ferguson, who has served on the school system's Minority Achievement Advisory Group since the early 1990s, said only those in the curriculum and instruction office who are qualified and philosophically prepared to implement the audit's recommendations should remain.

Ella White Campbell, a fellow advisory group member and community activist, said the audit's findings reiterated concerns that she and others have expressed for years to the curriculum and instruction department's leaders.

"If you keep the same people, they're going to keep doing the same things they've been doing," said Campbell, a former English teacher. "Teachers are overwhelmed by too many canned programs that have not been tested."

Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who asked for the audit last summer, not long after the system's previous head of curriculum and instruction left for a job in Michigan, said he couldn't comment on personnel-related matters such as calls for staff changes.

Since July, the office has been led by two assistant superintendents, Kathleen M. McMahon and H.B. Lantz.

McMahon said yesterday that she understands people might question the department's staffing, adding that as difficult as it is to hear the criticism, it is helpful.

"We exist to support teachers as they work to instruct students," McMahon said. "Dr. Hairston is expecting us to respond very quickly to this audit, and he'll be looking to see are our personnel embracing the recommendations and acting as rapidly as possible to make the necessary revisions."

The audit, compiled in a 423-page report, found that teachers are inundated with new programs but are given little practical guidance. 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 training and tools, and measuring whether programs are working before trying something new.

McMahon said the office has begun addressing key issues from the audit, such as the lack of consistency in the curriculum guides that teachers use to help develop lessons. She said that until about four years ago, the department was broken down into two main divisions: elementary and secondary schools. Since then, the office has begun a transition to developing curriculum across subject areas, such as reading, from prekindergarten to 12th grade. After the transition is complete - and a format for all guides has been established - the curriculum should have greater consistency, she said.

"We'll look to our teachers to provide us with how the guides can be more helpful to them," McMahon said.

Recently, school officials hired Sonia Diaz, who most recently was a superintendent in New Mexico, to be the system's associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. She is expected to start next week.

Carmela Veit, a former Baltimore County teacher and past president of the county's PTA council, said an increasingly inexperienced teaching corps has made it imperative to have clear curriculum guidelines.

"More than 60 percent of our teachers have five or less years' experience," said Veit, also a former president of the state PTA who supervises teachers who are earning master's degrees in education at the Johns Hopkins University. "It's important for beginning teachers to have something that has specificity.

"In the past, we could've counted on seasoned veterans to help the [younger] teachers," Veit said. "The audit adhered to the principle of having curriculum guides as instructional tools to guide teachers and help students obtain certain goals. I think we've moved away from that."

The audit's 26-member team said it heard from many principals and teachers who complained that teachers find it difficult to adapt the curriculum to children's varying needs and abilities.

Patricia A. Lawton, principal at Red House Run Elementary, said the audit's recommendations can help administrators refine classroom strategies.

"We really need to further our efforts in differentiation in the classroom so we really can reach all of our children," she said. Through differentiated instruction, teachers are encouraged to work toward common academic objectives using a variety of strategies, such as small group settings, based upon each child's needs and abilities.

Lawton said more must be done to ensure that teachers know how to adjust their instruction. At Red House Run - which this year was named one of seven Blue Ribbon schools across the state - Lawton said she includes teachers in discussions about how best to address the academic goals.

"As long as we're trying to make a difference with the children, we allow the risks to be taken," she said. "We have a common objective, but there are different ways to get there. No one size fits all."

Harry C. Walker, principal at Sandy Plains Elementary, said he sees the audit as a roadmap for creating a systemwide professional development plan.

"It's how well teachers are learning that determines how well children are learning," Walker said. "The audit has provided the structure to move forward as a school system."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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