Trying to move from regulating to helping, Maryland educators follow other states

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In last Sunday's Perspective section, a man was incorrectl identified in a photo caption on page 5J. The man shown is actually Elliot Merenbloom, director of middle school instruction for Baltimore County schools.

The Sun regrets the error.

The State Board of Education spent a big chunk of a morning not long ago discussing whether to use the word "should" or "shall" in a school health regulation. The superintendent, who had been making loud plans to turn the agency into a school helper instead of regulator, could only smile ruefully when asked just when that transformation would occur.

Last week, Joseph L. Shilling, the superintendent, did more than smile. He proposed stripping his agency of 1,000 of its 1,400 employees as a first step in transforming it into a helping organization.

Only 400 of the Education Department's employees work in jobs related to the state's elementary and secondary schools, and Dr. Shilling is thinking of transferring the others to different agencies so he can concentrate on the 400. Then he wants to make drastic changes in what the 400 do.

Instead of having them spend their time telling schools how many math courses their students should take, for example, he wants them to bring all their energies to bear on helping the schools teach math better.

About 750 of the department's employees now work in vocational rehabilitation, helping train people who have been disabled or impaired for jobs. Others work overseeing the state's libraries or in private school accreditation or in running prison education programs or adult literacy projects.

Dr. Shilling is suggesting moving the prison programs to the state's Correction Division or the vocational rehab folks to employment and training or health departments, leaving him and the other 400 with a more sharply focused mission.

The proposal is only in the talk stage now, but just by bringing it up Dr. Shilling was making it clear he was serious about changing the purpose of his agency from regulating and administering to doing everything possible to help schools improve across the state.

In a recent interview, he said he expected to have a major reorganization in place by July 1. That will occur, he said, whether or not he keeps the programs that are tangential to his real mission. And at last week's board meeting, he promised he would have a plan ready soon on how the 400 school people

would be moved around.

The change would be part of Dr. Shilling's school reform plan, which moves the emphasis of the state Education Department from accounting for how many courses students take to what schools have taught them -- a shift from regulating input to assessing outcome. Along with that, the superintendent wants to give the schools help in meeting new demands for student performance.

"We intend to have this department reconfigured in a way to offer local schools help," he said.

Just how does anyone go about changing the entire nature of a bureaucracy?

"With difficulty," Dr. Shilling laughed. And then he added, "I'm serious.

"Regulations don't exist because I or my predecessor or his predecessor want them. They exist because people see the potential for abuses and you try to prevent them. But to try to stop that process is very difficult to begin."

In an ideal world, he said, education officials would say they didn't have to worry about school health regulations, and there would be no should-or-shall debate. But what happens, he says, is that various groups come in and complain that schools aren't doing things right.

"You can either ignore that, pay attention and offer teachers assistance or pass a regulation. That's what our board is wrestling with now," Dr. Shilling said -- figuring out how to make sure things get done without excessive and unhelpful rules.

That issue has taken education departments across the country by storm in recent months, largely because of yet another trend: The latest and most alluring trend in education circles is what's called school-based management or restructuring or decentralization.

It's hot in Baltimore, where Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke decided last week that Richard C. Hunter, the superintendent, had to go because he was dragging his feet on restructuring. And it's hot in Maryland, where Dr. Shilling's plans for school reform are predicated on individual schools' having more authority and responsibility for their affairs.

That impulse to turn decisions over to schools calls into question basic assumptions about the hierarchies perched atop those schools. Those questions have reached state departments of education with profound impact. And Maryland's examination of the role of its department is well in line with what's happening elsewhere.

"We've got quite a bit of activity," said Chris Pipho, director of the information clearinghouse for the Education Commission of the States. "What's happening is that reform has been coming for eight or nine years. Now it's turned to restructuring, and people are saying that that takes a different kind of state education agency.

"As you try to help local districts struggle with their own restructuring, you can't run the same kind of state education department."

State departments are under attack in Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona and Utah, Mr. Pipho said. Delaware is studying how the state department delivers services, and the state board is considered likely to recommend compressing the bureaucracy to make it more effective. North Carolina is considering asking local school districts to issue report cards on the state department.

But the most dramatic changes are taking place in Kentucky and Virginia.

Jack Foster, education aide to the governor of Kentucky, says that the relationships between schools and state are changing dramatically, the result of a reform plan drawn up by David W. Hornbeck, Dr. Shilling's predecessor as Maryland's superintendent, who is working as a consultant to the Kentucky project.

Mr. Hornbeck based his plans for Kentucky on the assumption that the state should require schools to prove that their students are learning -- instead of requiring schools to certify that children have been in school for the required number of days and have taken the required number of courses.

In order to change the basic functions of the department, the state eliminated it. Effective June 30, 1991, it will exist no more, Mr. Foster said. A new agency will rise in its place.

"We changed the focus of accountability to the school site," Mr. Foster said. "We're giving a lot more responsibility to schools to make instructional decisions. We're characterizing it as a move away from a production model to a professional model."

To accomplish this, the state education department will have to retrain teachers, Mr. Foster said. "The teacher corps has to go from talking heads standing in front of a class to managers of other people's learning."

Statutory responsibility for education was taken away from the elected state superintendent and assigned to a commissioner of education, who has six months to design a new agency. Thomas C. Boysen, superintendent in San Diego County, Calif., was hired as the new commissioner. He can rehire some of the former department's employees, or hire all new ones.

"We had to change the state department to one of service, to become enablers," Mr. Foster said. "At the foundation of this we want to teach children to be independent learners, not dependent on textbooks. So the bureaucratic aspects had to go."

Not all of the department's regulatory functions will be eliminated. It must gather data to check on whether or not schools are doing the job. There will be safety and civil rights requirements, and those that follow expenditures of federal money.

"But what we deregulated was those activities which relate to the direct instruction of kids, what they learn and how they learn it," Mr. Foster said.

The board dropped rules on the amount of time children must spend in school, for example, and substituted rules for how much the children must learn.

Mr. Foster is convinced the only way to do it is to start all over again, as Kentucky has.

"If the statutes of the state still require schools to behave in certain kinds of ways, schools can't pull away," he said. "They end up working around the margins. The only way we could have succeeded was by starting over. We would have re-created schools, but we couldn't."

In Virginia, Joseph Spagnolo Jr., who had been a local superintendent for 17 years in Lynchburg, was hired as state superintendent on the promise of reforming a department widely viewed as an ineffective one that issued too many regulations.

"He made it clear when he took the job that he would reorganize," said Edward W. Carr, an assistant state superintendent in Virginia. "And he has proceeded with his view of what the department should be."

The whole thrust is toward offering local schools help, and Virginia plans to develop a consortium that will put university faculties to work on questions troubling local school systems.

"We are at the same time moving from accountability relating to input -- how many books are there in the library -- to one focusing on outcome indices," Dr. Carr said. Test scores are one of the measures to be used; the number of students going on to higher education is another.

"We're going to leave decisions on strategies and approach to the individual communities," he said.

At the same time, Virginia has a task force examining its education regulations, trying to sift through mandates from the federal government, the state legislature and the department itself to determine which are needed and which are not.

"It's a complex question," Dr. Carr said, and will take a year or two to answer.

Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, takes a skeptical view of all this bustle toward deregulation.

"The favorite word is accountability," he said. "Someone else is going to be accountable, and they hand out the speeding tickets."

Changing the way things are done will require changing the way teachers and administrators do their job, he said, and states will have to help out instead of casting opinions about how the work is done.

"It will be trickier than governors think," Mr. Hunter said. "The same federal government that talks about deregulation cares fervently about regulating teachers. All you have to do is look at the rule book. And it only gets thicker. It never gets thinner."

Mr. Hunter sees a conflict between decentralizing authority and centralizing testing.

"I think well-intentioned people are caught in a cross fire of history and that things have not been well-thought out. It looks to me like the state superintendent in Maryland is trying to free up creative energy of people at the schoolhouse, but state education departments are caught up in history and the desire of legislators to know what's going on."

He sees no signs of the trend's abating, however. "I think the trend is bound to continue. The contradictions are going to boil up and make everybody unhappy at times, and we'll have to settle tough questions. How much do you want to know about local schools? The more you want to know, the more central your hierarchy will be," he said.

Mr. Hornbeck is convinced that it remains eminently possible to change the very nature of the bureaucracy. "Regulation in the sense that we have known it is nothing more than a well-intentioned effort to control quality when you can only affect the inputs," he said.

Maryland has taken the first big step toward changing with the Sondheim Commission, which recommended a new system of evaluating schools by how much their students have learned. That will be put in place beginning next spring.

"What has not yet happened but I understand will happen is that standards will be applied at the school level and there will be a system of penalty and rewards," Mr. Hornbeck said. "I think once those things happen, the state board and state department will in a position to move out of regulation. I think state departments can help rather than regulate if the structures are changed. What you need to do is regulate by outcome rather than input."

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