Baltimore County schools spent $5 million on textbooks, curriculum despite warnings

State had advised against such work because of new national standards

November 10, 2011|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County school leaders disregarded advice from state officials and forged ahead to overhaul the teaching of English, spending more than $5 million over the past few years to buy textbooks that mostly sit unused and to rewrite a curriculum that has been shelved.

The system spent about $2.2 million on a 27-year-old grammar textbook with outdated references to encyclopedias and almanacs, both barely used by today's students, according to school system documents. The textbook and accompanying workbooks remained in a warehouse for nearly a year, and school officials acknowledged they are just now being delivered.

The rewrite of the language arts program and the creation of a new linguistics curriculum to supplement it began in 2009 and continued through last school year, despite state warnings that Maryland was about to change what should be taught in English — potentially rendering the Baltimore County effort fruitless. The system also paid teachers to work on the curriculum overhaul and purchased other English books.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston defended the school system's actions, saying that the expense for curriculum writing isn't unusual and that new grammar books were needed.

But Hairston acknowledged that the school district is now redoing its language arts curriculum for a second time to align with a state and national effort. And the county's curriculum chief says the first rewrite of the language arts curriculum has been set aside. The linguistics curriculum was released, but hasn't been widely used, according to teachers and administrators.

Critics, including parents and Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, question whether the school district used its resources wisely. And school board members grilled school system staff Tuesday night about the language arts curriculum and some of the book purchases.

Marks said in an e-mail before the meeting that the school board should "determine why taxpayer money was spent this way."

"At first blush, it doesn't make sense to spend money on resources that wouldn't fit in with a new state-mandated model," Marks said.

Laurie Taylor Mitchell, a parent and vocal advocate for more spending on school buildings, said: "The waste of money is appalling."

Curriculum writing

In 2009 when the county began the curriculum rewriting, the Maryland State Department of Education was already participating in a grassroots effort by more than 40 states to produce the first common, high-level standards that would guide teaching for all grades for years to come.

By last summer, Maryland had used those "common core" standards to write a framework for a new state curriculum and was training 4,000 teachers on how to begin the transition this school year. Every school system in the state needed to significantly adjust what was being taught because teachers and schools will be judged on how students score on the new national tests.

"We were asking the districts: Don't spend a lot of time and money on [curriculum rewriting], hold on," said Colleen Seremet, who was the state assistant superintendent for instruction at the time. As early as the spring of 2010, she told districts to wait for another year until the state completed a new framework.

But in Baltimore County, those warnings were not heeded and the writing went ahead.

Two new curricula were written, one for linguistics and one for language arts for secondary schools. Documents released by the school system under a Public Information Act request show that 177 teachers and administrators were paid to work extra hours to write the curricula between 2009 and 2011, at a cost of $577,000. Some teachers earned as little as $39.16 while others made as much as $24,000 over two years.

For the linguistics project, the system rented space at the Loyola Graduate Center in Timonium for Saturday workshops that went on for months at a cost of $9,550, according to school system documents. The system also bought lunch for the writers at a cost of $18,095.

The linguistics curriculum, which hadn't existed before, was an effort to give more focus to grammar and writing. The language arts program, which includes reading as well as writing and grammar, was being written for grades six through 12.

In an e-mail response, Hairston said part of the project will be used because the county is planning to implement the linguistics curriculum. He added that as teachers are trained in the new standards, the books are being sent from the warehouse to schools.

Hairston noted that the district had already added a rigorous College Board program for math and language arts to augment the curriculum in the middle schools that is similar to the common core standards.

The county "is at the forefront of implementing the common core curriculum so that all children will be college and work force ready," Hairston said.

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