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School Reform: Beyond the Bell Curve


Each of us can remember a particularly difficult test in school, when classmates looked at one another with a collective sense of dread at our lack of understanding of the material. And we can all remember the great feeling of relief when the teacher "curved" the test results, bringing failing grades above the passing mark and the average grades into As.

Over the years, this process of grading on the bell curve has become an ingrained practice in our schools. Indeed, as we look back over the past hundred years, we can see the bell curve becoming the icon of fairness in education.

But in looking ahead to the 21st century, it becomes a symbol of failure, perpetuating the myth that, within each classroom, there are "smart," "average" and "dumb" students.

During this century, states have fulfilled their constitutional duty by making education available to every young person. But they have sustained a system that is funded on the curve and graded on the curve, thus allowing many under-funded schools continually to produce under-educated young people.

As this state faces its social responsibilities in the 21st century, it is recognizing that it can no longer tolerate the wholesale neglect that has contributed to social and economic decay in neighborhoods across Maryland. For years, real estate agents have steered prospective buyers toward the neighborhoods with good schools -- schools where students succeed.

Now, in order to rebuild forgotten neighborhoods, we must make all schools places where students can learn and are held to our highest expectations. We must shatter the bell curve and invest in the belief that all children are capable of learning rigorous academic content. Given appropriate instruction, every child can pass that difficult test.

This is not mere rhetoric. For four years, Maryland has been engaged in building a new system for supporting meaningful and comprehensive changes in how schools operate. It is my sincere hope that 1993 will be remembered as a critical year for education in our state. This past week, several state actions solidified our reform initiative and positioned Maryland to ensure that all schools have the resources necessary to deliver a quality education to their students.

On Tuesday, I proposed to the state Board of Education high standards for student performance that will help determine which Maryland schools are successful and which ones are failing. The same day, I proposed to the board a state regulation that will permit the state Department of Education to intervene in those failing schools to turn them around with new leadership and innovative practices.

These two steps establish a rigorous accountability structure that demands successful performance levels from all schools. However, if this accountability system is to have a meaningful impact on school improvement strategies, it must be accompanied with adequate resources for meeting social and academic challenges in our schools.

Since 1983, Maryland has distributed more than $7 billion to local school systems based on school enrollment and local wealth. Though the funding formula was revised in 1987, it has not kept pace with demographic and economic changes that have thrust upon schools a generation of learners with ever-diversifying needs. Achieving success in our schools today means providing services to students from a host of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, to unhealthy and underfed poor children, to students facing the horrors of drug abuse and violence on a daily basis, to exceptional children and students with physical and emotional disabilities.

On Wednesday, Gov. William Donald Schaefer introduced us to the members of the Commission on School Funding, who have been charged with addressing the needs of this diverse student population. The panel, which will report its findings by November 1, 1993, has been asked to re-examine the way Maryland funds education and recommend ways to ensure that every school can offer a quality education to its children -- an education system that has zero tolerance for failure.

Taken together, these efforts represent a systemic approach to school reform, which has been hailed by the nation's governors and President Clinton as essential for redesigning schools to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

In many ways, our efforts mirror the priorities of the president's education package, Goals 2000, which calls for state-wide performance standards and flexibility for change within individual schools. Likewise, Maryland is among an elite group of states that have embraced school-level accountability and improvement as the basis for transforming their school systems to ensure the success of our youth.

Even in defining success, we have broken new ground. By becoming the first state to require our graduates to engage in community service as an integral part of their academic experience, we transmit the belief that school is about more than preparing for the world of work -- it's about learning the skills of democracy, becoming skilled to thrive in a diverse, dynamic society.

But, as so many failed reforms efforts suggest, reform takes time, and in the long view, Maryland has just begun the arduous process of improvement. Although a comprehensive, supportive state educational system is critical, preparing students for their collective future will ultimately fall to teachers, families and communities. Many schools across Maryland already have developed elaborate improvement plans based on their perceived deficits and have begun working to meet the needs of children. However, our task will be complete only when that process has been set in motion in every school.

As educators and as citizens, the challenges we face today are serious ones. Sustaining the health of our democracy and our economy depends, in large part, on our ability to tap our most precious resource -- our children. To do so, we must abandon the "bell-curve" mentality and commit to the axiom that what we want for our own children is what we need for all children.

Nancy Grasmick is Maryland superintendent of schools.

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