Educators say expectations high, funding stagnant

Superintendents say federal law upped challenges

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

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Staff photo by JESSE YEATMAN
St. Mary's public school Superintendent Michael Martirano, right, makes a point about No Child Left Behind during a panel discussion Saturday with Calvert public schools' Superintendent Jack Smith, left, and Prince George's public schools' Superintendent William Hite, not pictured, at St. Mary's College of Maryland's education colloquium.

No Child Left Behind "made the invisible visible," one of them said, but three Maryland school superintendents agreed Saturday that the federal law saddled school systems with unfunded mandates that made the work of teachers harder.

A forum for aspiring teachers and other educators at St. Mary's College of Maryland brought together top area educators, including the superintendents of St. Mary's, Calvert and Prince George's public schools, to share their ideas on education issues facing schools.

The colloquium, called "Schools that Learn," was the first of what the education studies department hopes to make an annual event.

Each of the three superintendents during a luncheon panel discussion voiced some criticism of the sweeping No Child Left Behind law, particularly the mandates that forced school systems to pay for costly improvements without the promise of more funding.

"I think it was a good start," Michael Martirano, superintendent of St. Mary's public schools, said of NCLB. Not so long ago educators would not or could not talk about the learning differences between certain subgroups, including race and family wealth.

He said he would hope the pending reauthorization of the federal law would not throw out everything but simply build on the current law and correct its flaws. Reporting graduation, dropout and attendance rates is an important aspect that should remain, Martirano said.

"We know what we need to do" to provide a good education to all students, he said. The problem now is finding the funding to do it, Martirano said.

"It made the invisible visible," said William Hite, superintendent of Prince George's public schools.

However, "there were significant problems with the policies that went along with that," he said.

He said the law motivated states and districts that already had a lot of money to spend.

"It made us look and sit up and pay attention," Jack Smith, superintendent of Calvert public schools, said. "It's got to move to more of an individual model."

One of many educational phrases to come out of NCLB is the moniker "highly qualified" for teachers who have the right degree and training as outlined by school systems. That term is changing to "highly effective," a term national education officials feel is more appropriate.

In Prince George's public schools have more than 130,000 students, half of whom are from low-income families, so finding effective teachers is of utmost importance, Hite said.

"It really makes it extremely important to have the right individual in front of those students and the right individual leading that school," Hite said.

Hite uses a pay-for-performance model to help attract these teachers, he said. Teachers who work in difficult environments deserve incentives, he said.

An effective teacher "is the difference for these youth between lives of poverty and lives of careers and being able to have [and support] a family," he said. "All of us have to be inspired how very important this work is to our young people, our community and our country."

Smith said, "Our profession is critically important… and we simply have got to pay attention to what we are doing at all times to give the best to the students."

Smith said it is imperative to make connections between data, accountability and learning.

"We've got to pay attention to accountability" because of the punitive consequences, he said. "Data is a tool," to help educators, but it is not what's most important, he said.

Learning is what's most important, he said.

"If you think it is simple, you might be choosing the wrong profession," he told the room peppered with aspiring teachers. He said teachers need to understand the complexity of the job.

"Don't be your own worse memory of school," Smith said.

Before the luncheon panel the student teachers and other attendees attended workshops that focused on different aspects of education.

Scott Smith, director of secondary instruction, administration and school improvement at St. Mary's public schools, discussed the implementation of the Fairlead Academy concept designed to support ninth-grade students who are struggling academically.  

Jennifer Rankin, Maryland Teacher of the Year from Garrett County, explained how she prepares her middle school students for success in both English and algebra standardized assessments.

Other educators boasted of the benefits of after-school programs and the positive effects mentoring, sports and clubs can have on struggling students at all grades.

"I found the breakout sessions to be enlightening," said Catherine Brandt, a St. Mary's College student pursing her master's in teaching degree. She also appreciated the remarks from the superintendents. "They gave advice, and coming straight from the superintendent, it means a little more," she said.

St. Mary's College has 42 students enrolled this year in its master's in teaching program along with another 130 undergraduates working toward a career in teaching. All of the students spend time in St. Mary's public schools as student teachers.

"They are doing the full job of a teacher. They're living the life of a teacher," said professor Julia Bates.

Bates and Leslie Moore, the college's coordinator and director of student teaching, said that the relationship between local elementary, middle and high schools and the college is important and that the benefits are reciprocal.

"There are a lot of contributions" from the student teachers, including the enthusiasm that they bring to the classroom, Moore said.