Time for ‘Bottom Up’ Education Reform

Time for ‘Bottom-Up’ Education Reform

by George W. Liebmann

The renewed clamor for postponement of ‘common core’ testing provides further evidence of the failure of ‘top-down’ reform in Maryland public schools. Who can forget MSPAP, the State Board’s high stakes tests for graduation, and the procrastination in fulfilling the ‘Race to the Top’ promise that teacher promotions would be related to student performance?

What has not been tried is ‘bottom up’ reform. Maryland has the nation’s weakest charter school law; new schools are bound to union contracts and must be approved by local boards, whose authority they reduce. The number of charter schools has stagnated under the O’Malley-Brown administration and there are virtually none outside of Baltimore City.

Two other measures which would allow principals and school districts to improve the quality of teaching have likewise made little progress. The Calvert Institute has recently issued two studies , each of about 65 pages in length,by qualified researchers, Christopher P. Ryan and Nicholas Schwaderer of teacher certification rules in Maryland and of Maryland’s use of internet-based distance learning. (Available for $10 from the Institute, 8 West Hamilton St, Baltimore 21201).

The study of teacher staffing reveals that Maryland has chronic shortages of various types ofmath, science and special education teachers, and that requirements that they have taken a year or more of methods courses exclude about 90% of Maryland’s college graduates from the teaching force. Many other states allow teachers to qualify with only a term of education courses. 40% of teachers in New Jersey and a third of teachers in Texas and California are ‘alternatively certified,’ but only 12% of those in Maryland, where such programs are available only where local districts sponsor them. Only five of Maryland’s 24 school districts have done so.

Maryland’s approach to ‘distance learning’ has been equally backward. Of the 31 states authorizing ‘distance learning’ in public schools, Maryland has the second smallest program. Montgomery County, which leads in the use of distance learning has less than 1% of its students involved in such courses. There is highly limited use of ‘blended learning,’ where 20% to 80% of a couse is given on line, although it is of obvious value in language and math courses involving repetitive drills. Maryland makes only limited use of ‘flipped classrooms’ where lectures are given on line, freeing classroom time for individualized instruction and assistance with homework. In 2009-10, less than a tenth of one percent of Maryland students were enrolled in virtual courses, as against 8.1% in Florida and more than 2% in six other states.

Although the use of distance learning is in its infancy, Maryland has been especially slow-moving. Its education code flatly prohibits full-time on-line learning, and it vests responsibility for approval of on-line courses not in principals or even in local school districts but in an office in the State Department of Education with one part-time employee and a backlog of 17 courses requiring review. A recent state law restricts courses to those “offering that which is not otherwise available” “for the purposes of ensuring equality.” This levelling-down approach scarcely encourages local initiative.

The dominant feature of Martyland’s public school system is its centralization and its closed shop. Organizations like the Maryland State Teachers’ Association and the American Civil Liberties Union constantly clamor for more school spending. But the system will not improve if it continues to fence out liberal arts and science graduates, housewives returning to the labor force, and career changers, and if it continues to obstruct new types of schools and the use of new methods of instruction.
George W. Liebmann is the volunteer executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research (info@calvertinstitute.org)

Posted in: Education, State and Local Politics, Urban Affairs

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