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Master plan for the schools: The first strategy for success

January 28, 1999

"How are we doing, really?"

That's the question the Washington County Board of Education asked a consulting group to answer back in 1997, as part of what was called a "curriculum audit."

The results were not flattering. The headline on Herald-Mail's story about the Phi Delta Kappa report's release was "Schools blasted in audit."

The school system's organizational structure was described as "dysfunctional," a word we usually associate with families that don't know how to get along. And there were a host of other problems cited, including everything from the way student progress was measured to the way needed items are worked into the school system's annual budget.

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But if school officials felt wounded by the report, they didn't spend a lot of time crafting alibis for the problems that were uncovered. Instead, they put together a 100-member task force of citizens, businesspeople and educators to craft a strategic plan to correct what was wrong.

Co-chaired by Michael G. Callas, president of Callas Contractors, Inc., and Theresa M. Flak, assistant superintdent for instruction, the task force crafted six strategies to improve the system. Recently I spoke to Flak about Strategy I, which reads as follows:

"Develop equitable, contemporary curriculum expectations with measurable outcomes and goals that meet the needs of the students of the Washington County public schools."

So what are curriculum expectations?

"Curriculum expectations are what we hope children will be able to do at each level of their learning experiences," Flak said.

By a certain point in their second-grade experience, the school system expects that students will be able to read at a certain level. Not "War and Peace," but probably "Run, Spot, run."

All through the system, in every subject, there are deadlines by which students are expected to master certain ideas, skills or certain groups of facts. What happened in the past, Flak said, is that school officials allowed teachers a great deal of discretion.

What's the problem with that? Aren't teachers supposed to be creative?

Yes, said Flak, up to a point, but she gave the following example of what happens when discretion is stretched too far.

"Let's say in the teaching of world history, a teacher has become very familiar with the Renaissance, to the point of doing a lot of outside reading and study, and that portion of the class has been expanded to the point where the teacher is spending three to four weeks on that," Flak said.

The problem, Flak said, is that to spend extra time on the Renaissance, something else must be left out, something that might be on the "exit exams" that the state will soon require all students to pass before they graduate from high school.

In order to see that students get all the material they should, "we've taken a lot of teacher discretion out it it," Flak said.

For those teachers who want to involve students in their special area of interest, Flak said that the world-history teacher might put together a special Renaissance activity - a medieval feast, perhaps - after school. Or Flak said, that teacher would have the option of developing a separate class on the Renaissance as an elective course.

The process shouldn't be too burdensome for teachers, Flak said, because the teachers are the ones who'll be writing the curriculum.

The strategy says that the curriculum expectations should be "equitable." What does that mean?

"Equitable means that the opportunity to learn should be comparable from school to school," Flak said.

That means that each school computer lab's software should be up-to-date, and that a school at the southern end of the county should be as well-equipped as one on the northern side, Flak said. She didn't say this, but it would presumably also mean that there should be an dquate number of teachers so that one schoool isn't plagued by overcrowidng while another has too many empty seats.

How about "contemporary?"

"Contemporary speaks not just to up-to-date, but to what's going on in the outside world and what other school systems are prviding," Flak said.

For example, Flak said, in nearby Frederick County, there are fewer elementary schools because Washington County over the years made a conscious decision to keep more neighborhood schools open instead of consolidating them into larger buildings. The system there spends almost the same amount of money per-pupil, but in a different way, since fewer facilities, etc. are required, she said.

In other words, if you're not keeping up with the Joneses, you at least need to be aware of what they're doing.

All right. We've looked at the definitions of "equitable, contemporary curriculum expectations" and found that we want local students to learn the same subjects on the same basic schedule, whether they're in Hancock or Smithsburg, using the most up-to-date materials in a way that doesn't favor one school (or set of students) over another. But the strategy also says we need "measurable outcomes or goals."

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