By George W. Nellies
6:00 AM EST, November 4, 2013
The latest plane being rolled out of the hangar at Dallas Dance Airlines (also known as the Baltimore County Public School headquarters) should be grounded before it has a chance to take off.
The recently announced plan to move to an eight-class semester from seven ("8 classes a semester for Balto. County high schools," Oct. 30) — is yet another far-reaching initiative coming at a time when teachers are still trying to cope with a new curriculum and a new teacher evaluation system. What is particularly mystifying is Superintendent Dance's sense of urgency and the steps he has taken leading to his decision to impose a uniform eight-class schedule throughout the system.
My first question is why he chose Scholastic Scheduling Solutions to serve as a consultant at a fee of $285,000. Their website identifies S3 as an Arizona company whose published set of testimonials consists of three letters — one from Mr. Dance's former employer, the Houston Independent School District, and two from the Ft. Worth Independent School District. All three commend S3 for its management, organization and communication skills. But there is no mention either of their understanding of the educational needs of students or of the impact of their schedule-building on student achievement.
The company is comprised of a team of three, each member described as a software — not education — expert. There is a total absence of any experience by any of the three in writing lesson plans to implement with students in a high school classroom.
A simple Google search has introduced me to another company, School Scheduling Associates, based in Virginia. This group of four educators has served as consultants to schools in 42 states as well as countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In my mind, credentials such as these are infinitely more compelling than those of S3.
In The Baltimore Sun's article, BCPS officials make some claims that don't exactly ring true, beginning with an opening assertion that the shift will make "better use of the teaching staff." Assistant Superintendent Maria Lowry is quoted as saying that the decision "wasn't made to cut staff or reduce costs." Yet the discussion of the implementation of a four-period block schedule makes it clear that a teacher could be assigned six classes rather than the current five, a factor that explains why "one consultant found that 100 fewer teachers would be needed under the new schedule."
School officials claim that the new schedule "will allow students to take four more classes a year." Really? How does one extra period produce four extra classes? Over four years, yes, but not in one. One might also question the relative wisdom of having a student graduate from BCPS with a total of 32 credits when only 21 are required for a Maryland diploma. That relative wisdom leads to yet another unfortunate consequence of the Dance decision.
Everyone at both the state and county offices is concerned about High School Assessment passing rates as related to graduation requirements. The new eight-period schedule would mean less time spent on each subject: Over a full year, the difference becomes a loss of fifteen hours, or 20 class periods, of instruction.
There is serious contention among critics of block scheduling that the lack of daily practice and exposure to subject matter is harmful to student achievement, especially in courses like math, world languages and music. Block scheduling on an A/B rotation can result in a gap of a day or days whenever daily attendance is interrupted; should the absence be due to illness or other personal reasons (as opposed to a systemic closure), a student could miss a considerable amount of material and have extra difficulty catching up.
School Scheduling Associates lists a number of fatal steps that can be taken when implementing a new schedule. Some sound remarkably like what's happening in Baltimore County. "Start with an administrative edict. Let the study committee dominate. Don't involve the parents. Don't involve the students. Don't involve the union. Don't do a mock master schedule. Don't create pacing guides."
Considering how the announcement that Mr. Dance is "imposing" the new "uniform eight-class schedule" has blind-sided the Teachers Association of Baltimore County as well as parents and students, I'm guessing that S3 failed to cover those caveats in their quarter-million dollar consultation.
Mr. Dance has already admitted to asking teachers to fly in the Core Curriculum plane while it is still being built. Stakeholders in what he likes to refer to as "Team BCPS' would do well to insist — absolutely insist — that the Board of Education put his "imposition" on hold. It would be the height of irony to have to say, "Houston, we have a problem!"
George W. Nellies is a retired English teacher who spent 33 years — out of a 52 year career — teaching in Baltimore County Public Schools.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun