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.
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.)
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."
But one challenge has been an uneven distribution of teachers deemed "highly qualified." In some high schools - particularly those with higher concentrations of minorities or low-income students - only 65 to 75 percent of teachers met that mark as of October, while in other districts the proportion was 85 percent or more. The gap is smaller than it was a few years ago, however, partly because Hairston set a policy against high-quality teachers transferring out of an underserved school unless the school has high-quality replacements. NCLB sets the end of this school year as the goal for having all teachers in core subjects with a rating of "highly qualified."
The district is also giving better guidance - in training and embedded in curriculum - to address a wider variety of learning styles in classrooms. That's become essential as the county has diversified. Since 1990, the minority population in the schools has grown from about 18,000 to 51,000 - nearly half the total student body. Over the same period, the portion of low-income students climbed from about 13 percent to 32 percent.
At Parkville High School, teeming with 1,800 kids, algebra teachers meet every month to drill into student data and discuss who needs help. They're committed to students passing the HSA, but they wonder whether some freshmen understand that graduation depends on it.
This year, the district adopted a more engaging curriculum, several teachers say. Kahliah Blackwell's students eagerly ask to do "games" - not realizing how much problem-solving they're doing. She teaches those who are repeating algebra. "I have a couple in my class where the light bulb has finally gone on this year," she says.
Special education students also have to pass. "What I like is that we raised the bar," says Wally Gunther, who team-teaches several algebra classes where about half the students have special ed status. "They're achieving higher than they ever had before. But the HSA is very hard."
The other big push in high school is literacy. Starting next year, the district will give students who need it extra courses in language arts. Many teens grew up with "whole language" instruction and lack knowledge of grammar mechanics, says Meg O'Hare, coordinator of the advisory groups that represent each segment of the sprawling district. The initiative adds more skills instruction to the current focus on literature. The low English HSA scores will be "corrected in time," she says, "but we need to make sure that every school is ... using a good curriculum."
Gaps aren't just an issue at the low end of the achievement scale. There's an expectations gap at the high end. "A lot of teachers have felt only a certain kind of student fits into [advanced courses]. We've really tried in our county ... to redefine what all that means and to open the door wider to nontraditional students," says Dorothy Hardin, principal of Pikesville High School, a large campus nestled in a prim neighborhood north of Baltimore. While most teachers are supportive, "I've had some who've left because I don't want people to define levels by what they assume from a person's background."
On the elementary level nationwide, the portion of African-American students in gifted and talented courses rose from 3.8 percent in 2000 to 6.5 percent in 2004. The portion of Hispanics also rose, to 11.1 percent, but both groups are still behind the 14.4 percent rate for whites.
A program called AVID nudges high school kids with average grades to challenge themselves in more advanced college-preparation courses.
Ella White Campbell, chair of the minority achievement advisory group, says community collaboration has yielded improvements. But she adds that it requires constant vigilance. In schools with high concentrations of minorities, she says, disciplinarians are often hired as administrators, when the children would be better served by curriculum specialists. Some school board members who complain that there's not enough parent involvement don't realize, she says, how difficult it is for single-parent families, or students who live in group homes or foster care.
District leaders are hopeful because their strategies to close achievement gaps are research-based and evaluated before being fully implemented. Barbara Dezmon, head of the Office of Equity and Assurance, produced a massive minority achievement report for the district last year that was commended statewide and by the NAACP. But as much as they rely on data, "those lines on a bar graph represent children ... that are put in our care," she says. "Often the failure isn't the child's." It's the responsibility of the school system, she says, to adjust as best as it can to the needs of the children.