By Amanda Costikyan Jones
WASHINGTON – The education reforms proposed by President Clinton in his State of the Union address are “not going to change the way we do business” in Maryland, said a state school official.
Department of Education spokesman Ronald Peiffer said Maryland school districts are already practicing most of what Clinton preached.
“We really already have all of these mechanisms in place,” he said of Clinton’s school accountability plan. It calls for school report cards, discipline policies, teacher quality initiatives and an end to “social promotion,” among other things.
Maryland educators said they were largely pleased by the president’s initiatives, with only slight worries that the plan could lead the federal government to usurp state and local authority.
“We have a real concern that this does not end up being a series of … federal requirements,” said Carl Smith, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. “We don’t have a national education system. Education is a state function.”
But Peiffer said he is “not at all” worried by the prospect of the federal government becoming more involved in education, since Maryland has met nearly all of Clinton’s proposed requirements.
“For other states, the impact may be greater,” he said.
He said he feels “very positive” about the reforms in Clinton’s “Education Accountability Act,” which Peiffer described as “putting a lot of emphasis on instructional things that really count.”
The president’s plan threatens to withhold federal money from school districts that do not take several specific steps aimed at improving student performance.
The first component of the act would require schools to end social promotion, the practice of letting students continue to the next grade even if they have not met academic standards.
Peiffer said Maryland addressed that problem at least two years ago, when the state took student promotion rates off the list of criteria it uses to evaluate schools. He said officials found that including promotion rates on school report cards encouraged schools to promote as many students as possible.
Peiffer said the promotion rate “turned out to be the least effective of all the measures on the report card, because it was easily manipulated.” He believes social promotions have declined since the state stopped grading schools on their promotion rates.
Clinton also called for states and school districts to mandate school discipline policies, something already required by Maryland law, Peiffer said.
The president’s call for states to “turn around their worst-performing schools or shut them down” mirrors current Maryland practices as well. The state, for several years, has had the authority to take control of failing schools away from local school boards.
The state has also taken steps to improve teacher quality, as Clinton proposed, but Peiffer said it has proved to be a stubborn issue.
“That’s something we are very worried about,” he said. “We have two school systems in Maryland [Baltimore City and Prince George’s County] that each have over 1,000 teachers … teaching by virtue of provisional certificates.”
Provisional certification allows teachers who have not yet met all state requirements to remain in the classroom. The state Education Department last year strictly limited the number of years that teachers may teach without becoming fully certified.
But the state must exercise caution when weeding out uncertified teachers, Peiffer said. Without them, school systems with teacher shortages “may have to rely on long-term substitutes” to fill vacancies.
“We have to be careful … so we don’t end up forcing even less-qualified teachers into the classroom,” Peiffer said.
Maryland’s teacher education programs produce a total of about 2,500 new teachers each year — nowhere near enough to meet demand.
“By the fall of 2001 we will need 11,000 brand-new teachers,” Peiffer said.
State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick has proposed a number of reforms to attract and keep qualified teachers, by providing teacher-mentoring programs and financial incentives. The proposals will be considered by the legislature in Annapolis this spring.
The president of the state teachers union said he supports measures to hold teachers to higher standards.
“I don’t think teachers and teachers’ unions should have any problem with teacher-quality issues,” said Karl Pence of the Maryland State Teachers Association.
He said the union agrees with Clinton that emergency certification should be phased out.
“Our position has absolutely been that for years,” Pence said. “We don’t believe you should be bringing unqualified teachers into the classroom.”
Pence said he was impressed with the president’s speech overall and thinks “the state of Maryland is pretty well positioned” where the accountability reforms are concerned.
Smith also said he was “pleased that the president continues to focus on public education,” but is concerned about implementation.
“As always, the devil is in the details, and we will be very strong in urging Congress and the president to continue to work with the local school districts and with the states,” Smith said. “Local control of education is a fundamental principle of our public school system.”
Rose LaPlaca, outgoing president of the state Board of Education, said Clinton’s ideas sounded good to her, too. But she is not convinced yet that they will bring about real change.
“I would be very pleased and very happy if the things that he said came to be,” she said. “But I have to see it to believe it.”