Staying ahead of the game

Despite Maryland's reputation for having the best schools in the nation, there's still plenty of room for improvement in how all 24 of its local school districts prepare their students for college and the work world. The school reform movement that has begun to turn around the prospects of students in Baltimore City holds lessons for every other jurisdiction in the state, and it's essential those lessons take hold if Maryland is to maintain its No. 1 ranking nationally for educational excellence.

Having won a $250 million federal Race to the Top grant awarded to states evincing a willingness to embrace tougher standards for students and teachers, Maryland now faces the challenge of making the kinds of changes needed to live up to its promises of reform. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to progress is complacency bred of previous successes, such as the attitude expressed by Montgomery County when it refused to sign on to the Race to the Top application based on idea that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Yet even districts that are on the whole quite good, like Montgomery and Baltimore counties, have schools that are struggling and in need of help. Districts across the state are dealing with pockets of poverty where student achievement lags behind that in higher-performing schools, and they are also dealing with increasing numbers of students with special needs and students for whom English is a second language. All these challenges will require local school officials to take a hard look at what they are currently doing to keep such disparities from growing.

Among the immediate reforms schools will be required to put in place are the tougher standards in the new common core curriculum that already has been adopted by 40 states and that aims to make Maryland students competitive not just nationally but in the global marketplace. That effort stresses instruction in critical thinking, problem-solving and writing skills rather than rote learning geared to correctly answering standardized test questions. It will also require the state to rewrite its existing testing instruments to reflect the higher standards embodied in the new curriculum.

That shouldn't be a problem for school districts that have already established high standards for student achievement. What is likely to be more contentious is the new requirement for schools to take growth in student achievement into account when evaluating teacher effectiveness. Many teachers balk at the idea of being judged by how well their students do when there are so many factors involved in the learning process that are beyond their control, from lack of parental involvement to problems of neglect or abuse at home.

There's also disagreement over exactly how growth in student achievement will be measured — and rewarded. Is a teacher who helps a student progress from one grade level to the next over the course of a year better or worse, for example, than one whose student starts out a grade level behind and is still one grade level behind at the end of the year?

These are the kinds of questions that local school districts, administrators and teachers unions are going to have to work out with state officials over the next two years as the reform process proceeds. But they are not insurmountable obstacles, and it's essential that they be overcome in order to keep up the momentum for change.

Maryland's suburban school districts may not have been nearly so enthusiastic about school reform as Baltimore City has been, but it's important that they, too, recognize that even the best districts in the state aren't necessarily doing enough to make students competitive in a global marketplace — a problem for schools nationally — and that with the commitment Maryland has made to its Race to the Top plan and to the national common core curriculum, they are going to have to embrace it whether they like it or not.

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