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A bar raised for all

Baltimore County attracts national attention for its efforts to increase the level of every student's achievement.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 20, 2006


In the not-too-distant past, struggling students in some of Baltimore County's high schools could have opted for courses like "Consumer Math" instead of algebra. They might have been nudged toward a host of easy classes that would get them to graduation day but would prepare them for little else in life.

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That didn't sit well with Superintendent Joe Hairston. Three years ago, he eliminated all nonrigorous courses. For example, all students would be required to take algebra. They'd get support until they passed the statewide High School Assessment (HSA) in that subject and in three others - tests that will determine eligibility to graduate starting with the class of 2009, this year's freshmen. Last fall, the district offered parents algebra workshops so they could help their kids with homework.

"In this era of accountability ... it made no sense to continue to offer meaningless courses," Dr. Hairston says. "Moreover, we're finding out that if you create stretch goals for children, even the most challenged students will make a greater effort, and the experience alone puts them in a much better place."

That's one of the decisions Hairston is most proud of when he talks about efforts to close "achievement gaps." To him, that primarily means the gaps between students and standards, with the bar continuously being set higher as the economy creates more knowledge-based jobs. He doesn't frame the issue as a matter of race or income, though the district is keenly aware of such gaps and is dedicated to distributing resources to eliminate them.

What it boils down to, Hairston emphasizes, is ensuring that all students are taught well.

Baltimore County schools serve about 107,000 students, making it the 24th largest district in the United States. With an increasingly diverse population ringing the city of Baltimore, its communities range from industrial to pastoral.

When Hairston took the helm in 2000, he gathered input from politicians, researchers, parents, and school custodians alike. Out of that came the "Blueprint for Progress," which spells out specific strategies for broad goals, such as having all students graduate high school.

The blueprint gave the district a head start on many issues that public schools nationwide have grappled with since the federal law known as No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002. NCLB pressures schools to improve statewide test scores for subgroups of students - and to have all students reach "proficiency" in core subjects by 2014. Schools used to report average scores, but now results must be broken down by categories such as race, socio-economic status, and special education, so that the high performance of some won't mask the problems of others.

Baltimore County still has a long way to go toward its goals, but it has begun to garner attention for its systemic approach to improving achievement.

The district is among those highlighted in a report on black male students by the Schott Foundation for Public Education in Cambridge, Mass. Baltimore County has the highest graduation rate for black males among US districts with more than 10,000 of them. In 2004, 78 percent of black males here graduated, compared with 80 percent of white males, says a forthcoming update.

By contrast, national numbers indicate a significant gap, with 45 percent of black males and 70 percent of white males graduating. (The rates are based on the number who start ninth grade and graduate four years later. Some researchers argue that better methods of calculation indicate a much smaller racial gap nationwide.)

Goals and data-driven decisions make a difference

Baltimore County is particularly effective because it has "goals, master plans, and data-driven decisionmaking," all with an eye toward equitable outcomes, says educational research consultant Michael Holzman, author of the Schott reports. "They do for these kids what they would do for their own kids."

As a result, overall achievement has improved in recent years, measured by such things as statewide achievement tests and SAT scores. Some test-score gaps for minorities and low-income students have narrowed.

But there's no time to rest on laurels. Overall pass rates for the HSAs in government, English, and biology range from 52 to 62 percent. For students who haven't already passed the algebra test in middle school, the pass rate in high school is only 25 percent.

"The question is, Will the percentage that we were graduating still be able to graduate?" says Maggie Kennedy, chair of the Baltimore County Education Coalition, which includes a wide range of community advisory groups. "It could be scary.... But is it salvageable? Absolutely."

From Hairston's perspective, it's essential to have educators who encourage students rather than giving off a vibe of "deficit thinking." He remembers the power of a third-grade teacher whispering in his ear when he was floundering on an assignment, "You can do this."