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

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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The system spent about $2.2 million on a 27-year-old grammar textbook with outdated references to encyclopedias and almanacs, both barely used by today's students, according to school system documents.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.

The school system's curriculum specialists are now adapting the county's old curriculum to fit into the state's new common core framework. The process involves adding or altering material to be taught so that the county and state plans are aligned.

But in language arts, the specialists are not adapting the version of the curriculum that the county just paid to rewrite. Instead they are using the older version, taught in schools today, that the new curriculum was supposed to replace, according to Roger Plunkett, chief of curriculum and instruction. He said using the old curriculum allows the system to keep as many of the existing books and programs as possible, thus saving money.

Book purchases

School officials wanted to buy new books to match the two new curricula.

So the school board approved the purchase of the 1983 version of the "English Language Skills" grammar textbook in February 2010, and the system ordered about 45,000 copies at a cost of $49 each for every student in grades six through 12. School officials saved money by leaving out sections that weren't needed when they ordered the one-time reprint. Workbooks for teachers and students were thrown in free by the publisher.

Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, said such a reprint can "occur from time to time" but is unusual.

"I don't think it is exactly common to reprint textbooks from 1983. It is something I don't hear a lot about," he said.

The textbook, which Hairston said had been modernized with some new illustrations and cultural references, arrived in the summer of 2010. But because of an error in the books, according to Hairston, they were sent back to the publisher to be fixed for free. School system officials say the books were returned to the warehouse and sat for a year.

Hairston, who is leaving at the end of the school year when his contract expires, said the central office staff decided to delay the release of the reprinted grammar textbook until the linguistics curriculum could be aligned with the common core standards.

Some administrators and parents questioned whether such an old book should be ordered. In most cases, it is difficult to obtain extra copies of a book no longer in print if some are lost or damaged and need to be replaced.

"With the pace of change in how we communicate through written means and the Internet, I can't imagine an outdated 27-year-old book would be of much value to anyone," said Mary Ellen Pease, a parent of a recent graduate of the Baltimore County school system who has pushed school leaders to offer a broader array of courses.

According to school system documents, the board also spent $500,000 on two writing books, one for high school and one for middle school, as well as $600,000 for new novels. And it approved $1.4 million for new middle school language arts anthologies and $300,000 for the "Little, Brown Handbook," a writing and grammar textbook that was intended to be used as a reference book for teachers.

But the new language arts curriculum was never put into effect, and many of the books are sitting in a warehouse, on storage shelves in schools or in the back of classrooms, according to three teachers in middle and high schools and several central office administrators.

Novels were purchased for high school that teachers describe as good literature, but that don't often fit into their current lesson plans.

Copies of "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens, "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams and "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf landed in high schools, but most aren't currently taught at that level.

School board member Ramona Johnson expressed concern at Tuesday's board meeting that 8,000 copies of "Mrs. Dalloway" had been purchased at what she called a "substantial" expense, but that the book was more appropriate for college. Documents show the school system paid $120,111 for the novels. An administrator at the board meeting told her the system might try to send the books back to the publisher.

'Revolving door'

The effort to rewrite curricula and to purchase books was spearheaded in part by Barbara Dezmon, who was then an assistant superintendent. Dezmon, who has retired, came under fire last year for an online grading program she helped to create with school system employees.

Hairston gave her the copyright that would allow her to eventually market the online Articulated Instruction Module, or AIM, to other districts and individually profit from the program. State lawmakers questioned the ethics of that agreement.

The new linguistics curriculum was written to fit into AIM, according to teachers and administrators involved in the curriculum project. An online grading portion of AIM was scrapped more than a year ago when teachers and legislators complained it was time-consuming and redundant. But a curriculum portion was saved, and teachers can access the linguistics program there.

Dezmon acknowledged directing the writing of the linguistics curriculum, but said she was only involved in the beginning stages of the language arts project, including evaluating the state of language arts teaching in the district.

She said an overhaul was needed because students had stopped being required to do compositions in the 1990s, and she believed more writing and grammar was needed in the curriculum. She also said the "English Language Skills" book had been used previously in the county and was still better than modern, more expensive texts.

"It had a basic and sound foundation in grammar," Dezmon said.

She said she was aware that the common core standards were coming soon but believed that children needed the language skills books immediately.

"Do you wait a year or two when you have children about to leave school who may not know how to write?" she asked. She compared the situation to waiting a year for a vaccine that still needs Food and Drug Administration approval. "And we say, 'But wait, we have people dying here,' " she said.

By the summer of 2010, the high school portion of the language arts curriculum was complete and the middle school part was in the works. The linguistics curriculum wasn't completed until 2011.

Pease, the Baltimore County parent and advocate, believes that high staff turnover resulted in dysfunction in the curriculum offices. Six people have been in charge of curriculum and instruction since 2006. The chief academic officer's job had been vacant for a year when Mary Cary, a former county principal, was hired in June 2010, the same month Dezmon retired. But she quit the job six weeks later.

"With that revolving door, it would be difficult to have any consistency, and that would lead to all sorts of problems," Pease said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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