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Our View: Criticism From Teachers Forced Baltimore County Schools To Drop A Cumbersome New Student Evaluation System For Now, But Serious Questions Remain

January 11, 2010

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston made the right call last week to back away from a controversial new student evaluation protocol after teachers complained it would have created reams of extra paperwork for them to fill out every year and cut into classroom time. Mr. Hairston dismissed the controversy as overblown and blamed the situation on "misunderstanding and miscommunication." But the truth seems more complicated than that, and his explanation of how AIM came to be adopted in the first place suggests a disturbing vacuum of leadership and accountability at school district headquarters.

The goal of the Articulated Instruction Module, or AIM, seems laudable enough: to help teachers communicate better with parents about how their kids are doing in the classroom. But the new forms, which would have required every teacher to assess each student's performance in 100 different skills, were announced in an emergency directive just weeks before they were due and with no input from the teachers who were supposed to make them work. That left many feeling overloaded by an unfamiliar and unwieldy new system they say requires them to duplicate much of the same information they already are collecting on report cards and through unit tests.

AIM is the brainchild of one of Mr. Hairston's top deputies, Barbara Dezmon, who developed the new evaluation tool on her own and holds the copyright to it. She wasn't supposed to be paid for its use in Baltimore County or elsewhere in the state, but if it proved successful here, she could have profited handsomely from its use across the country. The protocol initially was scheduled to go into effect at all county schools this fall, but in fact it was implemented in piecemeal fashion, with some schools using it only for certain core courses and others in only a few grades. That was the situation Dec. 18, when a group of top administrators issued an emergency memorandum from the superintendent's office ordering that it be used universally.

When the memo was issued, a school district spokesman said Mr. Hairston was fully aware of its contents and that he supported it. But on Tuesday, he told The Sun's Liz Bowie that he had been out of the office recovering from knee surgery that day and that the memo may have "omitted" some crucial language that would have set teachers' minds at ease. He also blamed the uproar not on the fact that teachers found the new protocol cumbersome, time-consuming and redundant - filling out 100 metrics per student could add up to 10,000 keystrokes - but on ill-informed teachers who were blowing the situation out of proportion. Still, he said he would establish a group to streamline the program and limit the number of teachers required to use it.

That, however, doesn't eliminate the conflict of interest posed by Ms. Dezmon's potential to profit one day from the system, and it sidesteps the question of whether AIM is necessary or even desirable in the first place. There ought to be easier ways to facilitate communication between teachers and parents than filtering them through 100 jargon-filled data points. After all, what most parents really want is a dialogue, either in face-to-face conversation or through exchanges of e-mail or phone calls, that will reassure them that the teacher knows their child's individual strengths and weaknesses and that the teacher has a plan to help that child achieve his or her potential.

Teachers have welcomed the district's decision to step back from the program for the moment, and that may give Mr. Hairston time to better explain its merits and why it's needed - if, indeed, it is. But whether AIM is ever fully implemented or not, the lack of judgment displayed in this episode should give the county school board and elected officials real cause to question the leadership of the state's third-largest school district.

Readers respond

What teacher out there doesn't agree that conversations are better than 100 points of jargon-filled data?

But in some areas of Baltimore County, those conversations don't happen - not because teachers don't know what their students have or have not learned but because parents don't come to back to school night and ignore multiple requests for conferences.

The money spent developing AIM would have been better spent on initiatives that target parent involvement in education, which along with poverty is a big reason for achievement gaps in Baltimore County.

Carol Ann

Open your eyes, Board of Education members. Listen to and question all that you hear from Dr. Hairston. Think critically and evaluate his decisions and leadership.

Show that you care about the students and their teachers. The AIM story offers the perfect opportunity for you to see what is really happening to our students and our profession. Take action.

A. Stockbridge

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