BOE's second-in command on helping teachers improve

November 13, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

By the time she was in third grade, Patricia Abernethy knew she wanted to be a teacher. School officials apparently knew she'd be good at it, too, because when one of the lower grades needed a substitute, they let her teach the class.

"You couldn't do that today," said Abernethy.

Schools are doing a lot of things they didn't do back then, and in Washington County, much of it comes under the scrutiny of Abernethy, the deputy superintendent for instruction.

Her duties include overseeing what's taught and how and other things like testing, special services and special education. And of course, preparing the system to perform under the "No Child Left Behind" Act.

Abernethy has been here almost a year and a half and has watched the local school system's test scores go up and its dropout rate go down.


She said the changes that have been made began with the realization that each child has one year at a certain grade level and the school system needs to do everything possible to maximize that child's opportunity to learn.

To do that, Abernethy said, the system has to keep tabs on how well a child is doing, so if an intervention is needed, it happens before the end of the marking period.

Teachers use a data-information system called Abacus to enter a child's grades, so that progress can be tracked much more closely. If that sounds more like the stock market than the traditional classroom, it is. It's designed to keep children who are floundering from falling hopelessly behind.

But if that sounds like another plan to heap more work on the teachers, Abernethy said there are also new ways to help classroom teachers.

The first is the appointment of student achievement specialists, who, as Abernethy describes them, are master educators who can help other teachers improve the way they teach certain lessons. These teachers can also take small groups of children who are having difficulty out of the classroom for extra instruction.

"They take kids out for 'booster shots,' " Abernethy said.

These specialists then have coaches of their own, outside experts who come in and preview the latest teaching techniques, Abernethy said.

"We want to get the support to the classroom, to make it more helpful and supportive," she said.

To help make life easier for the classroom teacher, Abernethy and company have set up "positive changes groups" that listen to teachers' complaints about things like excessive paperwork - and actually do something about it.

In one instance, the responses of first- and second-grade students on certain tests have to be transferred to a format that can be scanned into the data system.

It's a very important job, but one that doesn't require a teacher's expertise or creativity. And so the positive changes team recommended that one instructional assistant in each school be trained to do that, even as they worked with supervisors to simplify scoring and scanning procedures.

Everything hasn't gone smoothly, she admits. Materials for a new reading curriculum didn't arrive until days before school started this year, leading to anxiety on the part of teachers who had to use it.

"They are correct. The textbook companies will promise they will get you something in a certain amount of time and sometimes they won't," she said, adding that the problem was made worse by additional enrollment this year.

Abernethy has been in education since she began teaching in Dover, Del. in 1968 and said that she has no desire to be a superintendent. She did that in New Jersey and said that she has since "learned to become a staff developer. I went from teaching children to teaching adults."

The single most important variable in improving student achievement is the quality of the teachers, Abernethy said.

"I felt I could be of help to children that way," she said.

She was fortunate, she said, to study with W. Edwards Deming, known as the father of Total Quality Management. Deming taught that given enough training and the desire to learn, everyone can be successful.

"We're working through some of the implementation of a new reading program and teachers are telling me they understand how all the pieces fit now," she said.

Abernethy said she's comfortable where she fits into the system and with her boss, Elizabeth Morgan.

"She and I started on the same day in Baltimore and I came to respect her well," Abernethy said.

Like Morgan, Abernethy sends the message that in this post-No child Left Behind world, doing business as it used to be done is not an option, but neither will the system let teachers in trouble founder.

The teachers who yearn for the days when they were pretty much left alone to do their work will have to console themselves with the thought that they may be more closely scrutinized in the current system, but they won't be abandoned by it either.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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