Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools, spoke recently with Richard C. Gross, editor of the Opinion Commentary page.
What can the children, parents, teachers and principals expect in the coming school year in terms of improvements?
There are higher levels of resources that are available to the schools, the economy of the state is good and schools have realized some of that, both at the local level and through state contributions as well as federal contributions.
There's more of a focus. People are generally agreed that children are coming to school to learn and, therefore, the focus really needs to be on the achievement of children. ... And teachers are very desirous of their own improvements. So I see a teaching work force that's ready to challenge students. From the parents' point of view, they want to know that their children are in a safe environment, and they want to know that the children are making progress.
Are they in a safe environment?
They're in a very safe environment. Of all the places children can be in our nation, schools are the safest. I really believe that.
And from the children's perspective, they want to have a teacher who's caring; they want to have a teacher who's interesting to them. They want - if they are in high school - to know that this teacher is a good teacher and that they are going to have opportunities beyond that high school. In elementary school, they certainly want a teacher who's caring and nurturing. But children in elementary school also want to be challenged.
With problems of teacher certification around the state, can parents and children be assured that the teachers know what they're doing?
We have a national crisis in terms of teachers shortage. I think Maryland has stepped forward with several programs that are addressing that issue.
One is that people can be career changers, meaning that they were excellent scientists or excellent mathematicians and they can go into our school systems and teach. And we give them support before they go in there, so that we're expecting these people to be top-notch teachers who really know their subject areas.
We still have too many teachers who are provisionally certified, meaning they have not passed the national test, and the State Board of Education has put a cap on that. You just can't remain in that category indefinitely. So they're either going to have to meet the requirements, or they're no longer going to be able to teach. So parents should be assured that we have strategies for dealing with these things, and we're not just going to let a person linger in an uncertified status.
Will you still do that even though there are teacher shortages?
Yes, because we hope we'll ratchet up other avenues for getting good teachers - like the alternative route to certification, the career changers, the people who come from the military, or the young people who go to liberal arts colleges and want to go into teaching but haven't gone through a teacher's college.
How bad is overcrowding?
We certainly don't have that in Baltimore City because we have a declining enrollment. But we do have seriously crowded conditions in a number of our school systems. Now, that's changing because of the population growth that is now occurring at the middle and high school levels. So, we're finding that they're fewer children entering the elementary school.
How do you ensure that a child in Owings Mills and a child in East Baltimore get the same quality education?
That's why we have an accountability system in Maryland. We've set what we consider to be reasonable standards for the achievement of students. We measure that by way of our testing programs. We work with teachers to develop their skills and we measure that on a yearly basis. And when we see schools that are not within the range of what's expectable in terms of providing that quality education, we do something special with those schools. We identify them, we work with them and we try to turn that situation around. And when it isn't turned around after a period of time, we have the situation that we have with the three schools in Baltimore, where they're privatized.
If the privatization is a success, will it be expanded? Or is this just an experiment?
It can't be expanded if there isn't the reason for expanding it. And the reason for expanding it or initiating it in Maryland was that these schools were the three lowest performing schools in the state. They did not improve over time, meaning a four-, five-year period of time. They did not show improvement and, therefore, the state had authority to do that [privatize]. Now a local system could decide to [privatize], but the state would not have the authority to do it unless we see other schools in those circumstances that are not improving.
What do you think privatization means for the future of school systems - like charter schools - that can catch on?
If it goes well, school systems are going to be looking at it as a possible option - if they have schools that are not performing well, which don't tend to be improving. Today, we ought to be looking at every possibility to ensure that children get a good education. There are just two kinds of people for the 21st century: Those who are educated and those who are not employable. We have a huge responsibility.
How would you assess Baltimore and the Baltimore region's schools ?
Tracking them over the last 10 years, in Baltimore City I see progress in the quality of instruction. I really see progress over the last two years. In the surrounding areas, I see a high level of effort to improve the schools. Are we where we want to be? Absolutely not. We have to continue to ratchet up the standards. That's what this world is requiring, and we have the responsibility to prepare the students.
What's the problem in the counties?
I wouldn't say it's as much a problem as changes in the counties. I see more diversity of population, I see more pockets of poverty and they present the kinds of challenges that have existed in the city for a long time. They offer challenges to the counties now.
You mean as areas become more urbanized, you get the same kinds of problems that you've had here in Baltimore City?
I don't say that they are the same. Because I see the systems as being very functional. There was a period of time when the school system in Baltimore City was very dysfunctional, so I don't see that. What I do see will be higher numbers of students who require additional considerations.
Students that come from backgrounds of poverty, students who are speakers of other languages vs. English, students who have transferred from other states, where people follow jobs. So I see children who are not as homogeneous as they once were in these counties. I think that there are some lessons that they could learn from the city.