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Maryland School-Reform Effort Ignores Teachers' Needs, Union Head Charges

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By Lisa Jennings

A major new school-reform effort in Maryland ignores the needs of teachers and denigrates their efforts, the head of the state's largest teachers' union charged last week.

The reform plan proposed by a gubernatorial commission in August is permeated with "a cavalier attitude that assumes teachers are not trying hard enough," Jane Stern, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, told a hearing of the state board of education.

Those criticisms--and a variety of other issues explored at the board's hearings last week--indicate the kind of problems state officials may encounter in implementing the recommendations of the panel, known as the Sondheim Commission.

The commission, appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, put forward a series of proposals that include setting up an accreditation process for districts to meet state-mandated minimum standards, rewarding high-performing districts with a reduction in state regulation, and punishing low-performing districts with state intervention.

The reform plan also calls for school "report cards" and a redesign of the state's student-achievement test.

Ms. Stern was one of several educators to testify before board members, who have indicated preliminary support for the plan.

In a separate hearing, members debated how the recommendations, if adopted, could be implemented.

Superintendent of Schools Joseph L. Shilling estimated that the plan could be fully implemented within 18 months, with some "tradeoffs." But the process also could take as long as five years, he warned, in order to satisfy the demands of all involved parties.

Mr. Shilling emphasized the need for quick action. "I would really like to see this hammered out as expeditiously as possible," he said.

'Bureaucratic Crowd Control'

Although the msta has not opposed the reform plan over all, Ms. Stern criticized the proposal's backers for failing to consult with teachers and urged that more research be done on teachers' views.

She also maintained that the Sondheim Commission's recommendations do not include any attempts to "personalize" the school environment by reducing class sizes and cutting back teachers' workloads.

Instead, she argued, the report encourages schools to "substitute bureaucratic crowd control for the personal give-and-take of an academic community that nurtures students."

Ms. Stern asked the board to determine how much time students already spend on testing, and to attempt to "strike a proper balance between instruction and evaluation" before implementing a new testing system.

She also urged that teachers be allowed to take part in the development of the accreditation process.

Testing, Report Cards

The board next month will take up two aspects of the plan, according to Robert C. Embry Jr., a board member.

One proposal would rework the state's achievement-testing program. It calls for moving to a criterion-refer4enced test, under which students would be graded against a current standard that would measure whether they had mastered specified objectives in five subject areas.

Currently, students are given a norm-referenced test, which is graded against a national standard set by students more than a decade ago.

The other recommendation would create annual school report cards, for which the state would have to develop a new information-gathering system.

The proposals present significant obstacles, board members noted last week, both in working out what should be tested and in deciding what information would accurately measure school performance.

Under the state's proposed implementation plan, both steps would involve the creation of committees--which some board members warned would delay the reform process.

Lois A. Martin, executive director of the Governor's task force, said some of the decisions to be made may depend more on funding than timing.

"There are so many choices still to make in implementing this plan, and some choices will be expensive, and some inexpensive, and that may affect the board's decisionmaking process," she said.

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