Can we find the will to change our schools?

September 05, 1997

This past week the Washington County school system released a study of its operations done by an Indiana consulting group, and the news was not good. Ed Hayes, a school board member, said that for the school system, "this is our water and sewer crisis." But just as revelations about the county's utility debt prompted an effort to fix it, Hayes and others I spoke to say this report is a good first step, if only because it acknowledges that the system needs repair and updating.

The study itself, done by Phi Delta Kappa International, is a "curriculum management audit." The consultants looked at curriculum - those things that the system has decided students need to learn - and how progress is measured. They found that after what's called the "essential curriculum" was rewritten several years ago, the system didn't taken the next essential steps to design mechanisms to measure how well the material was being taught, and perhaps more important, to help teachers modify their methods to get new material across successfully.


The consultants found an organizational structure they called "dysfunctional." For a number of top jobs, including the supervisors of English and Technology Education, there were not even job descriptions on file.

Long- and short-range planning efforts were described as inadequate. Staff development - training teachers in new methods or material - was described as fragmented and unfocused.

And while the system has loads of data on student performance, the consultants say it does a poor job of turning what it knows about that performance into a plan for improving it.

The report even found racial problems, saying that African-American students are "over-represented" when it comes to the percentage being suspended from school, and in being classified for special education.

There's tons more, including a bleak assessment of the school system's computer classrooms, many of which have outdated equipment used by teachers who haven't had the right training on how to use technology in the classroom.

Hayes, in his first term on the school board, says the last thing the board wants is to minimize the study's findings.

"We have to acknowledge this, to say we're going to take the heat. At the same time I don't want to be negative toward the teachers, because they are holding the system together," he said.

For a better idea of what's ahead, Hayes suggested I speak to Theresa Flak, the assistant superintendent for instruction, who came here from Baltimore County in July.

Flak agreed with the report's suggestion that while much effort was put into changing what was being taught to conform to the state's guidelines, not enough time (or money) has been put into training and assessment.

"That's not surprising, because school systems all across Maryland have been asked to do more with less," Flak said.

But money problems will not be an excuse for not moving forward, she said.

The first step, she said. will be implementing a strategic planning process. She compares what needs to be done with what General Motors did when they designed their plant for Saturn cars - rethought every part of the process to get "a higher degree of customer satisfaction with the product."

A large part of that planning effort will involve talking to everyone involved - parents, teachers and local business people - and paying attention to what they say, Flak said. As the report noted, and as many in the community have told me, too often in the past the school system has listened out of obligation and not because it really wanted constructive criticism.

Can all of this be done without a lot of additional money?

"It will be tough, but I go back to the Saturn plant. They were able to pull that off because they met the challenge, which will be to work smarter, not harder," Flak said.

Where money is needed is for teacher salaries, which Flak described as "not competitive" with neighboring communities.

"The attrition rate is killing us and we can no longer lament the situation and refuse to do anything to ameliorate this," she said.

The first step will be to share the results of the audit in a series of public meetings, including two specifically for teachers, Flak said.

"There are glimmers of hope. Test scores are on an upward path. In many ways I'm glad that the teachers have been insulated from the political battles here at Commonwealth Avenue. Now they need renewed confidence in their leadership, and interest in their input is one way to develop that," she said.

Make no mistake, this will be a multi-year process which won't be accomplished without some new money. The system's critics have to be sold on the soundness of the approach, which will take a more aggressive and professional public-relations effort that anything seen so far.

"I think we have the smarts to do it," Flak said. "It's just a matter of harnessing the will to do it."

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald- Mail newspapers.

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