Battle over curriculum hits Arundel

The Baltimore Sun

Over the past six years, eighth-grade social studies teacher Karen Maynard has watched her subject slip in stature.

What was once offered every day for a full school year is now taught every other day, for less overall time. This fall, social studies will be refashioned into a half-year course - meaning some students will go as long as a year without seeing the subject again.

"I feel left out by all of this," said Maynard, who heads the social studies department at Chesapeake Bay Middle School in Pasadena. "The lack of a state test in social studies [in eighth grade] has put us on a different footing. It's frustrating for me to see that I get half the time math gets."

The recent decision by Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell to turn social studies and science into semester-long courses in middle schools has sparked fierce criticism among parents, students and some teachers who accuse the district of robbing students of a well-rounded curriculum.

The roiling debate in Anne Arundel County reflects a trend in which a fifth of middle schools surveyed in a recent national study say they have sharply cut science, social studies, art, music and physical education in order to double up on math and reading.

"There's no question high-stakes testing is having an effect on what's being taught in public schools," said Jack Jennings, president for the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank that released the study in July.

"You'll get a division of opinion, with some educators saying the emphasis on reading and math is good because those are the fundamental subjects that form the building blocks for success in other areas," Jennings said. "But others in social science areas say kids are being shortchanged, and will be handicapped later in life. It's an issue that's of great concern and debate right now."

Anne Arundel's challenge offers a clear example of how a local suburban school system is scrambling to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under No Child Left Behind, which threatens harsh sanctions against schools unless they show they're on track to have every child pass state tests by 2014. The sweeping federal testing mandate is in its sixth year, and President Bush is struggling to renew it against a backdrop of growing bipartisan opposition.

"When you look at the pressures brought to bear with making AYP, adding more time for math and language arts is paramount," Chris Truffer, a schools performance director, said at a recent board meeting. "We have a finite [amount of] time that we have to cut into a lot of pieces and when you do that, some things have to give."

Over the past month, parents have sent dozens of letters and e-mails to central office administrators and school board members and spoken at school board meetings, taking Maxwell to task for making the decision quietly in February. Starting this fall, science and social studies will be offered every day for 86 minutes in alternating semesters, reviving an unpopular schedule in the suburban county two years ago.

Anne Arundel County has spent seven years bending and stretching its middle school schedule to offer students access to rich electives even as it doubled the time spent on math and reading to survive mounting education accountability measures at the state and eventually, federal, levels.

In a desperate search for a workable schedule that would help schools satisfy federal and state performance benchmarks, but still give parents and students the array of subjects they want, the district has waffled between offering block periods, four-, six- and seven-period school days, semester-long and alternate-day classes.

A long-term solution has stumped four superintendents, disgruntled thousands of parents along the way and even spurred State Board of Education intervention in 2001, when state officials discovered as much as a third of the system's 17,800 middle school pupils weren't taking gym classes and fine arts so they could squeeze in enough time for reading and math.

"We're in the process of redoing, rethinking the whole middle school program. ... There's no easy fix on what's going on with the middle school program and how to fix it. ... We just don't have consensus on that yet," Maxwell told school board members recently. "I don't know that you can say for sure if you spend more time on content you'll get better outcomes. It's how you deliver the subject that matters. Just doing the same thing for a longer time doesn't help."

Maynard, the social studies teacher, has experienced the effects of heightened education accountability in her classroom. Her job has increasingly become to prepare students for the ninth-grade U.S. government state test. As a result, she has been asked to ratchet up the number of days she spends teaching the Constitution to 30 and cut the time spent on the American Revolution from 20 to 12 days because the government state test doesn't focus as heavily on colonial America.

It's a misguided strategy, Maynard and other social studies and science teachers say. They believe their classes can help instill students with critical reading comprehension and essay-writing skills needed for high school success and high marks on the state tests.

Under the newest proposal, some students would take one course the fall of one year, and wouldn't pick it back up until spring of the following school year - a lengthy gap during which middle schoolers could forget the subject matter.

In dozens of letters and e-mails to school board members, and in forceful testimony before the school board, parents urged the administration to consider offering a seven-period school day that allows middle school students to have all their subjects every day, albeit for shorter lengths of time. The countywide Citizens Advisory Council voted 42-2 to support such a schedule and denounce Maxwell's move to half-year social studies and science.

"We just don't believe that science and social studies should be treated as if they're electives, especially with the focus on STEM [science, technology and engineering magnet] programs and the focus on attracting NSA jobs for BRAC," said Eric Sullivan, chairman of the countywide Citizens Advisory Council, referring to the military base realignment and closure process.

Maxwell said he understands parents' concerns but that shifting to a seven-period day would cost the district $2.7 million in additional teachers. He also defended semester-long courses, saying that daily instruction will help students with continuity of learning.

Still, parents complain the narrowing curriculum in middle schools is already yielding damaging results. They pointed to recent data that showed half of ninth-graders in two high schools have below a C average in classes. In the other 10 high schools, the percentage of freshmen earning D's and F's ranges from 11 percent to 43 percent.

"Why science and social studies are playing second fiddle to reading and math really baffles a lot of people," said Terra Ziporyn Snider, a Severna Park parent who has been an outspoken critic of the district's schedules and in 2002 founded a grass-roots group advocating for a balanced curriculum. "These students need to be engaged in school so we don't lose them at such a critical time."

The shift to a daily schedule sounds promising to eighth-grader Dallas Butts. The alternating-day schedule he has now sometimes leaves the 13-year-old unsure about which class - social studies or science - he has on what day, and he's brought the wrong binder or homework for to class more than once.

"It gets confusing. It's hard to get organized," he said.

The new schedule won't be as befuddling, he says, but he does worry about forgetting what he learned in a particular class if he doesn't see it again for two consecutive semesters.

"It's hard to keep some of this stuff fresh in your mind, you know?" he said. "Already when I have a class every other day, I forget some stuff. So maybe, if I don't have the class until two semesters later, it'll be hard to catch up."

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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