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Schools stymied, audit shows

The Baltimore Sun

A lack of oversight and teacher training have undermined academic progress in Baltimore County schools and perpetuated a minority achievement gap that could take 50 years to close, according to an independent review that found a breakdown between what children need to learn and what is being taught.

In an unprecedented, in-depth examination, the audit found that teachers are inundated with new programs but little direction, and many schools are in disrepair. It also found that "no one is 'in control'" of curriculum management - a critical function that includes determining what will be taught and when, ensuring that teachers have the necessary training and tools and measuring whether programs are working before trying something new.

"They're not giving teachers the right curriculum and professional development," Fenwick English, a lead auditor from Phi Delta Kappa International, an Indiana-based education advocacy group that recently reviewed the system's curriculum and instruction department, said yesterday.

The audit, a 423-page document that includes more than two dozen major conclusions, is set to be publicly released at tonight's school board meeting.

As an example of the lack of teacher training, the audit points out that although the district's technology plan meets state standards, many teachers aren't comfortable integrating computers into their instruction. Auditors said they visited more than 1,000 classrooms that housed about 6,000 computers, but found that only 24 percent of the computers were being used.

While the audit credits schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston for establishing an overarching plan for academic progress, it chided the school board for obsolete and outdated policies - nearly half of which are more than 25 years old - that do little to help shape the educational priorities for the third largest school system in the state and one of the 25 largest in the nation.

English said the system is doing as well as it is in large part because of Hairston's planning guide, called "Blueprint for Progress," but that it is the school board's legal responsibility to set policy so that the district's future doesn't rest upon one person's vision and plan.

"People come and go," said English, who has overseen about 60 curriculum audits since 1979. "The board's policies are the only thing that sticks. It's the only way you can hold your administration accountable."

Donald L. Arnold, the school board's president, said the board began reviewing its policies a few years ago with the goal of updating ones worth keeping and eliminating ineffective ones. The board's plan is that all policies will be reviewed at least every five years, he said.

He said the audit confirmed many of his suspicions.

"Although there are a lot of things we had a general concept about, this gives us proof," he said. "This was a total check-up of the system to help us make sure we're making the best use of our resources, both dollars and people."

Hairston said he plans to follow the team's advice and has already taken the report's recommendation that the district hire a chief academic officer.

About two weeks ago, he named Sonia Diaz, who most recently was superintendent of New Mexico's second-largest school district, to the position of associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

"We're not a bad school system, but we need to improve," Hairston said. "We put ourselves under the microscope because we want to do a better job in preparing our youngsters for the future."

The county school board last summer approved a $245,000 contract to Phi Delta Kappa. The nonprofit organization has reviewed curriculum management in school systems across the country and abroad for nearly three decades.

The executive summary of its report on Baltimore County schools is expected to be available online at www.bcps.org after tonight's board meeting.

With about 106,000 students, the county's schools are spread across rural, suburban and urban communities. State test results show a range of student performance, with some schools internationally known for high performance and others struggling to meet state standards.

For example, results from the 2006 High School Assessment in English showed that 58 percent of the county's students passed the exam, which is one of four tests that students starting with the Class of 2009 must pass to graduate. School-to-school comparisons showed disparities that ranged from 88 percent of Eastern Technical High School's students passing to only 35.5 percent of Woodlawn High School's students passing.

And while the achievement gap - the difference between how whites and minorities perform on the state tests - is narrowing, school officials continue to grapple with ways to eradicate it. In its analysis, the audit team estimated it could take 64 years to eliminate the nearly 20-point percentage gap in reading scores between white and black sixth-grade students.

Hairston said he enlisted Phi Delta Kappa International in August - soon after the system's previous head of curriculum and instruction left for a job in Michigan - because he knew changes were needed, and he wanted an objective evaluation.

A team of 26 auditors spent a week in December visiting 157 schools, including more than 3,000 classrooms, and interviewing parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders. They also analyzed information that directly and indirectly affect curriculum and instruction, including planning guides, budgets and policies.

"The system ... is data rich and information poor. But it's producing more data than teachers can effectively use," English said. "There has to be more professional development to show teachers how to make the data useful in the classroom."

English cautioned against using the audit's findings to make sweeping generalizations and said that the school system's curriculum is strong in some areas, such as English and language arts and math.

"We were in more than 3,000 classrooms and saw some excellent teaching and some excellent schools," English said. "Baltimore County schools are a fine school system. I would put any of my 16 grandchildren in them. I don't think we found anything in Baltimore County that was surprising or shocking, save one thing - the poor maintenance of facilities, which are in deplorable condition."

He also stressed that the audit, called an "exception report," is purposely designed to point out a school system's weaknesses.

"This is not a report card, where you get some As and some Bs and some Cs," he said. "The district is not going to be complimented for when the trains run on time. They're supposed to run on time."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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Highlights of consultant's recommendations for Baltimore County schools:

Hire a chief academic officer

Centralize professional development

Enhance assessment of each student's progress so teachers and administrators can adjust instruction

Create five-year plan to align spending with curriculum goals using cost-benefit analysis

Clear backlog of repair and maintenance projects

[Source: Audit by Phi Delta Kappa Curriculum Management Services Inc.]

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