Middle school reforms said only symbolic But educators promise that more substantive changes are in offing; Academics more of a focus; Critical evaluation brings studies, but cost fears remain

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Though it's been five months since a hard-hitting evaluation of Howard County middle schools suggested widespread reforms, the changes made so far are mostly symbolic.

Honor rolls are being posted in schools where they were once thought to be banned, and a middle school philosophy criticized for its emphasis on self-esteem has been thrown away.

But county educators promise that substantive reforms in the way sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are taught aren't far off.

School officials continue to study dozens more reforms -- in everything from class scheduling and discipline to homework and grouping students by ability -- suggested by the reports.

Their ideas are expected to be presented to the Howard school board May 22. An allocation of $80,000 in next year's budget is aimed at putting some of those ideas in place.

"I don't think there's any question that changes are coming," said school board Chairwoman Sandra French. "But the big question is going to be how much those changes cost and how quickly they can be done."

Still, in the five months since the evaluation was completed, its effects can be seen on the bulletin boards of Dunloggin Middle School, where academic achievement is being recognized for the first time in teachers' memory, and honor rolls are planned for grades this month.

"It just seems like the right thing to do to recognize good class work," said Yiyi Wang, 13, an eighth-grader helping oversee Dunloggin's bulletin board as part of a gifted-and-talented independent-study project. "It's kind of surprising that this kind of thing wasn't allowed before."

The county's 180-page middle school report -- released in October with 800 pages of supporting data -- contained a pair of evaluations of Howard middle schools.

One was by a 16-member citizens' committee that called for sweeping changes to improve academic achievement, saying middle schools had lost sight of that primary goal.

The other -- by two university professors hired as consultants -- produced a series of recommendations that frequently differed from those of the citizens' committee.

Both evaluations -- particularly the one by the citizens' committee -- struck a chord among many Howard parents, who long have complained that county middle schools focus more on self-esteem than academics and at times seem to be directionless.

Since the report's release, Howard school officials have been studying the two evaluations and putting together a comprehensive response, setting up 20 subcommittees for such areas as guidance, staff development, discipline, reading, testing, curriculum, special education and the gifted-and-talented program.

"I think the committee is putting together a response that will propose a lot of changes," said Alice Haskins, the kindergarten-through-12th-grade instructional coordinator who specializes in middle schools. "There are going to be some recommendations that we strongly agree with, and others we don't agree with at all.

"But whatever changes that get proposed will take money and time -- and that's going to be where the real challenge lies," she said.

The full response is expected to be presented at the school board's second meeting in May. The board plans to hold two public hearings -- one in June, the other in the fall -- and one work session on the evaluations and the school officials' response to them.

In the meantime, school officials announced several immediate changes in December.

A recommendation to reduce the amount of time eighth-graders spend on testing already had been put in place, they said, because of an unrelated action by the state.

This spring, the Maryland State Department of Education switched the standardized exams known as the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills to seventh grade.

Systemwide evaluations are almost completed on discipline, the Black Student Achievement Program (BSAP) and MASSI (Motivation, Assessment, Support, Structure and Instruction) program, so officials said there wasn't a need for separate middle school studies.

The reports called for a stronger, consistent discipline policy and a re-evaluation of the goals of the BSAP and MASSI.

And the amount of time middle school teachers spend helping students fulfill their state-mandated community service will be reduced, although how that will happen is still under review, Haskins said. She said she'd prefer that teachers try to make community service more a part of the academic curriculum, such as in the science classes at Owen Brown Middle School.

But the immediate changes that seem to have the most impact involve the encouragement and recognition of academic achievement and the elimination of a separate middle school philosophy.

The philosophy -- written in 1991 -- includes 10 statements about middle school instruction that focus on academic excellence as well as such goals as "develop[ing] positive self-image" and giving students "opportunities to develop a caring and trusting relationship with adults and peers."

"The most important change in my opinion has already happened -- setting aside the philosophy," French said. "The goal for all of our classes in all grades is excellence in teaching and learning, and anything that sends a different message needs to be set aside."

With the elimination of the philosophy, middle schools will follow the same priorities as the rest of Howard schools -- the seven goals known as "Beyond the Year 2000" that primarily call for academic excellence in a safe learning environment.

"I do think the philosophy was a little outdated," said James Evans, principal of Harper's Choice Middle School. "We're a K-through-12 system, we all ought to be focused on the same thing."

Haskins said she believes eliminating the philosophy will have more of an effect on community perceptions than on classroom instruction, but agreed it was something that needed to be done.

"We're going to do all we can to remove any perception out there that middle schools aren't focused on academic excellence," Haskins said.

She also said academic competition and the recognition of academic achievement always have been permitted in Howard middle schools, though not all schools have realized that.

The effect of that change seems to underscore one of the central conclusions reached by the middle school evaluations -- a lack of consistency among county middle schools.

At Dunloggin, the December announcement has signaled a change in school policy, say teachers and students.

"I think it means a lot to the kids who are getting straight A's or doing well in their classes to see their names up someplace," said Pam Richardson, Dunloggin's gifted-and-talented resource teacher, who is overseeing the "Dunloggin Chronicle" bulletin boards that recognize academic achievement.

"For those kids who aren't up there, it shows them what they can get with a little perseverance," she said.

But Dunloggin's assistant principal -- who came to the Ellicott City middle school last fall -- said honor rolls always had been a part of his previous middle school, Mount View.

"We always posted honor rolls [there]," said Gary Pryseski. "I'm surprised they didn't think it was allowed here."

Mount View was one of the school system's first participants in school-based management, allowing it to make its own decisions outside the school system rules.

Similarly, at Harper's Choice, honor rolls have been a part of the school for several years, with lists posted in the corridors recognizing students who earn all A's and all A's and B's, as well as those who show marked improvement.

Harper's Choice decided on its own to start posting honor rolls because it is involved in the MASSI program, another effort that gives the school flexibility to experiment on its own.

"We've been able to do things on our own, different from other schools, because of MASSI," Evans said. "I think it shows how so many of the schools are so different in what they do, which can be both good and bad. I think it depends on what those differences are, and I know it's something we need to look at."

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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