System won't hire Kaplan

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County school officials have scuttled plans to spend about $7.4 million for a national education firm's help in overhauling the system's curriculum -- a move that some educators and community leaders had questioned as unnecessary outsourcing.

County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said yesterday that with the school year starting and with it becoming increasingly cumbersome to find ways to pay for the unbudgeted initiative, he decided to scrap the plan to hire the New York-based Kaplan K12 Learning Services Division.

"I need to look at the best interests of the school system, and with the opening of school, this was not a time to be bogged down," he said. "As we move closer to the beginning of a school year, I am a very cautious person. I didn't want to open school with the distraction of seeking funding."

Hairston said he recently met with the president of Kaplan K12 to tell him of the school system's change of heart. He added that reports that Kaplan's curriculum work in other states has yielded mixed reviews -- ranging from school officials in Philadelphia boasting of increased test scores to teachers in Pittsburgh complaining that the materials were difficult to use -- had no bearing on his decision.

"There was nothing that Kaplan did," Hairston said.

Instead of revamping its curriculum, Hairston said the system will focus on making more tailored adjustments to its English, math and science programs -- key areas that were identified as weaknesses in an independent audit this year.

The work will be spearheaded by the system's curriculum and instruction department, and school officials plan to reach out to the system's nearly 8,500 teachers to find those who know how to write curriculum, Hairston said.

"Curriculum is written for teachers and generally by teachers," he said. "We have some talented teachers here, and we're finding some real gems."

He added that he met last week with a group of 50 teachers, all of whom volunteered to help with the curriculum project. Once nationally renowned for its curriculum development, the school system might need to do more training to restore that level of expertise, Hairston said.

Last month, the county school board approved plans to redirect funds to hire Kaplan to help school officials "develop and execute" sweeping changes to the system's curriculum, the system's documentation of what children need to learn and how that material should be taught.

But some educators and community leaders questioned the need to bring in an outside firm when the school system has a separate curriculum and instruction office with an operating budget of $109 million for fiscal year 2008 that started July 1.

Some retired educators also criticized the plan.

In Baltimore County, the company was expected to help create curriculum guides that would direct teachers on how to teach a course so that it meets established expectations and to provide professional development.

An independent audit this year found the school system lacking in these areas. The audit also found that teachers are inundated by new programs but given little guidance on how to use them.

The contract with Kaplan was contingent on the school system being able to redirect funds to cover the unbudgeted project -- which was estimated to cost about $2 million in this first year of the deal.

Hairston said yesterday that the process was proving "too cumbersome" as he wanted to ensure that funding for certain items, such as textbooks, was not compromised. After identifying funding that could be redirected, the school system would still need the County Council's approval to move the funds.

Carina Wong, a spokeswoman for Kaplan, confirmed last night that the company did not have a contract with the school system. In a recent letter to Hairston, Chip Hurlburt, the president of Kaplan K12, thanked the superintendent for a face-to-face meeting regarding the decision to forgo the contract.

"I understand from both the meeting and the call that given funding challenges coupled with the time of year and other pressures associated with the start of school, the District made a decision that now was not the appropriate time to move forward with the curriculum reform project," Hurlburt wrote.

County school board President JoAnn C. Murphy said last night that the board, after signing off on the plan last month, was growing concerned that the system could not find a way to pay for Kaplan without affecting major academic initiatives.

During its three-year contract in Baltimore County, Kaplan was expected to work with teams of teachers and administrators to develop curriculum for grades three through 12 in math, English, science and social studies as well as some noncore subjects such as art and music. The company had planned to station three full-time staffers in the county during the contract.

"What we need to know is: Of the work that needs to be done, how much can we realistically do ourselves?" Murphy said.

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