Gap between reform's theory, practice shown

The Baltimore Sun

An independent study has shown that students, parents and teachers back the theories behind the countywide high school reform, but they have little faith in the program's execution.

Teachers, parents and students panned the overhaul of Harford County public high schools, called the Comprehensive Secondary School Reform Plan, which introduced longer class periods, required students to take more credits for graduation and called for freshmen to select career pathways, starting in 2006.

While some school officials called the widespread discontent a communication issue, others, according to the report, said the reform plan was hastily approved as a "done deal preordained by the central administration," despite objections raised by the affected groups and the lack of research.

After listening to the findings on Monday, Harford County Board of Education President Thomas L. Fidler said there was a major disconnect between Schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas and the educators.

"Somewhere in the system, there is a failure in leadership," he said. "You either have support or you don't."

One of the most contentious aspects of the reform plan was the block schedule, in which students are assigned a four-period day, with each class lasting 83 minutes. Because of this schedule, teachers said they lost more than 1,000 minutes of annual instruction time per course, according to the report.

"The majority of teachers indicated that they were covering less content than they previously covered," said researcher Ronald Thomas.

But the trade-off is that students can take more courses, according to the study.

Researchers also concluded that the block schedule did not affect student achievement. Data comparing the year before and after implementation of the reform plan showed improvements in internal factors such as GPA, student attendance, dropout rate and office referrals, but a decline in graduation rates.

In standardized exams, Harford improved in all four High School Assessments, but declined in all three SAT subjects and Advanced Placement passing rates.

Three years ago, board member Lee Merrell cast the lone vote against the reform plan. "My biggest concern was that we were making such a massive change and there was no research to show it was going to improve student performance, which was all I really cared about," he said. "There are always new trends in education and some have been abject failures."

Only 13 percent of students said a required freshmen course called Living in a Contemporary World was helpful. The class was described as a hodgepodge, with lessons on note-taking and study skills mixed with more sophisticated topics such as income taxes and the stock market.

The plan was to make high school more relevant by creating smaller learning communities, allowing students to take more courses and offering off-campus internship opportunities. But many in the report lamented the lack of information before the reform plan was implemented.

"A significant number of stakeholders perceived the process as a closed one with pre-determined outcomes, regardless of the input that was received," said researcher Michael Hickey. "Whether this is true or not, the fact that the perception is so widely held across the stakeholder groups -- particularly the teachers -- speaks to a credibility gap."

Fidler, who is stepping down from the Board of Education this summer, expressed dismay that only 20 percent of teachers said they were informed about the reform plan, compared with 59 percent of administrators. Seventeen percent of teachers said the reform plan would be meaningful to students, compared with 65 percent of administrators.

"There is a sizable disconnect between our principals and our teachers," Fidler said. "We're affecting the lives of thousands of high school students and we don't have more than one out of four teachers supporting this."

Haas said after the meeting that she wanted "to understand why they responded in the manner that they did. Sometimes the numbers give you more questions than answers."

She said school officials would have to determine why principals felt they were informed, while the vast majority of the teachers didn't.

"We did not communicate a sequential implementation plan that everyone could grasp, so that's work to be revisited," Haas said.

Richard Slutzky, a Harford County councilman and education liaison, said such rhetoric worried him.

"The superintendent is not going to take the blame for this. Obviously, Fidler abdicated the responsibility of the board and himself. It passes downhill," he said. "Now, it's 'Let's blame classroom teachers.' Nobody's going to accept responsibility -- pretty soon it's the kids."

"This was a flawed process from the beginning," Slutzky said. "People tried to tell them it was flawed and they didn't want to hear it."

Survey Results

The groups were asked if they agreed with the following statements:

Students learn more in the four-period schedule than in a schedule with shorter periods.

Students: 55 percent agreed

Parents: 43 percent

Teachers: 22 percent

Administrators: 39 percent

High schools should develop additional off-campus work-study and/or internship opportunities.

Students: 67 percent agreed

Parents: 81 percent

Teachers: 69 percent

Administrators: 85 percent

"Living in a Contemporary World" helps students adjust to ninth-grade expectations.

Students: 13 percent agreed

Parents: 22 percent

Teachers: 7 percent

Administrators: 24 percent

The Harford County Public Schools provide sufficient off-campus educational experiences for high school students.

Students: 23 percent agreed

Parents: 19 percent

Teachers: 21 percent

Administrators: 27 percent

I had an opportunity for input prior to the first year of the CSSRP.

Students: n/a

Parents: 18 percent agreed

Teachers: 15 percent

Administrators: 50 percent

Harford County Public Schools provided the professional development that school staff needed to teach effectively using the four-period schedule.

Teachers: 36 percent agreed

Administrators: 68 percent

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