Long, hard work

December 08, 2007

Some of the methods used to improve failing schools in Maryland have not worked, according to the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research group. In a new report, the center concludes that one of the most common options - a turnaround specialist - is often ineffective. The same seems to be true of wholesale staff replacement, another increasingly popular solution.

There's nothing easy or quick about fixing failing schools. But at a time of decreasing financial resources, thoughtful planning and careful monitoring are critical.

The Maryland State Department of Education generally agrees with the center's conclusions. It has taken turnaround specialists off the list of approved solutions (but it has encouraged the several dozen schools that are using them to supplement their efforts). State and local education officials are rightly concentrating on improving the quality of classroom teaching rather than relying on governance reforms. The center and the department concede that solving the problem is long, hard work. But it is work that must be done to give every child the opportunity to learn.

The study found that of 76 schools in Maryland that were deemed to be failing for at least five years, only 12, or 16 percent, showed significant improvement since 2004. State education officials had concluded that turnaround specialists were useful in the early stages of a school's decline, but that more-comprehensive actions were needed to fix schools that had been broken for a long time.

Other national experts emphasize giving failing schools maximum flexibility over their budgets, staffs and programs in exchange for greater accountability. State and national educators also agree that support from parents and the community is helpful to reinforce the importance of education.

In the long run, however, the most critical changes failing schools have to make are in the classrooms, where teaching and learning need to be more effective and engaged. That means failing schools need to hire more qualified teachers and offer teachers more focused training. At the same time, they need to provide more coordinated services to students, including tutoring, health and other social services.

The state provided more than $9 million in school improvement grants last year, with additional money coming from the federal government and local school districts. With schools facing cutbacks under the state's deficit-reduction plan, making sure that the right fixes are in place to ensure that every school becomes a meaningful learning environment is crucial.

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