Md. Dept. of Education "Bridge to Excellence": A Bridge Too Far

by Lynda Case Lambert

All school systems in Maryland must follow laborious instructions and write ponderous reports to receive funding.
On October 16, 2005, every school system in Maryland will be required to submit its yearly Bridge to Excellence report to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). The instruction booklet each system receives explaining this task is 160 pages long. The items which each system must include cover everything from missions, goals and objectives to specifics of such things as anti-drug programs.

The instruction booklet sent out by the State is cumbersome and, sometimes, ill-written. Insider jargon, convoluted sentence structure, constant use of the extraneous, and redundant words—such as "high" as in "high standard" and "fully" as in "fully implemented"—make it tedious to read. I was also amazed at the number of possessives in this epistle that did not agree with their antecedents. (Example from pg. 14, #2, para. 2: "Does the school system intend to continue with their implementation despite the lack of success?") This apparent inability of MSDE educators to write correctly, however, is only a minor annoyance compared to the document’s instructions and requirements.

The reason that all school systems in Maryland must follow these laborious instructions and write these ponderous reports is Article 5-401 of the Annotated Code of Maryland.

The law, which was passed in 2002, required each school system to lay out a five-year Master Plan for its schools and implement it. Each county’s and Baltimore City’s Master Plan must, according to the legislation, describe "... the goals, objectives, and strategies that will be used to improve student achievement and meet State performance standards and local performance standards in each segment of the student population." (5-401.b.1)

Plans must be updated annually and resubmitted in order for the school system to receive its state funding. Such is required in order for the state, in turn, to receive funds from the federal government under the restrictions of No Child Left Behind, the well-publicized, controversial update of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Even though the required Master Plans and their yearly updates are mainly a funding requirement, the goal is to lay out the strategies for the actual education of children. Such education, whether you are an administrator drafting a Master Plan or a teacher drafting a daily lesson plan, is based on what are referred to as Core Learning Goals.

Each required subject has Core Learning Goals.At first glance, they seem straightforward enough. Any teacher worth her salt should be able to determine whether or not such goals are being fulfilled. The difficulty comes in the "expectations and indicators" that are part and parcel of each one of the goals. (See end of this story for the core learning goals for English.)

The first expectation for English goal #1, for example, is that the student will "use effective strategies before, during and after reading, viewing, and listening to self-selected and assigned materials."

The obvious question is, "What is an effective strategy?" The answer is contained in the indicators, i.e., those circumstances which indicate an expectation is being met.

For our example expectation, there are five indicators:

  1. The student will use pre-reading strategies appropriate to both the text and purpose for reading by surveying the text, accessing prior knowledge, formulating questions, setting purpose(s), and making predictions.

  2. The student will use during-reading strategies appropriate to both the text and purpose for reading by visualizing, making connections, and using fix-up strategies such as re-reading, questioning, and summarizing.

  3. The student will use after-reading strategies appropriate to both the text and purpose for reading by summarizing, comparing, contrasting, synthesizing, drawing conclusions, and validating the purpose for reading.

  4. The student will apply reading strategies when comparing, making connections, and drawing conclusions about non-print text.

  5. The student will identify specific structural elements of particular literary forms: poetry, short story, novel, drama, essay, biography, autobiography, journalistic writing, and film.
Incremental instruction creates an unmitigated hell for teachers of less methodical subjects, such as History, Drama or English Literature.
In times past, such indicators were assumed as the student demonstrated his or her knowledge of a particular book or skill. A test, an oral report, and class discussion allowed the teacher to know whether or not such tasks were being performed by the student.

Now, the presence of these indicators must be demonstrated through the accomplishment of individual—often unconnected—performance tasks. Each task must have a defined and "measurable objective," and each day of teaching must measure at least one. Such measurement must also be able to be pulled from a file and shown, should it be required as proof of teacher accountability.

Such incremental instruction may come somewhat naturally to subjects such as mathematics, but it creates an unmitigated hell for teachers of less methodical subjects, such as History, Drama or English Literature.

The days of going off on an interesting tangent are gone. The ability to discuss for the sole purpose of learning how to explore an idea are defunct—two things which, not so long ago, used to go by the name of "teaching."

No Child Left Behind leaves no room for the teacher to teach.

The major problem with No Child Left Behind and Master Plans and Core Learning Goals is that they leave no room for the teacher to teach. No Child Left Behind and Maryland’s Bridge to Excellence require teachers who are well-schooled in their subjects—the meaning, I’m told, of the redundant phrase "highly qualified"—yet each of these highly qualified teachers is then required to take his or her knowledge and squeeze it through a fine sieve, to separate it into pieces so small that it no longer resembles a body of knowledge, but a thousand-piece puzzle. Under these edicts, the teacher becomes an administrative facilitator.

The art and craft of teaching is no longer possible; nor, sadly, is learning.

The ponderous volumes required by Maryland Bridge to Excellence, and the seemingly positive intent of No Child Left Behind, are creating an educational environment in which the art and craft of teaching is no longer possible; nor, sadly, is learning.

Learning is the ability to discern, to ponder, to disarticulate and reassemble the theories and knowledge of the ages—not just a recitation of facts. Learning is inculcating a complete learning process—not just practicing incremental pieces of it.

Think a minute about someone trying to teach you how to shoot pool. Your instructor shows you how to hold the cue, shows you the table, how to rack the balls, and how to hit them; but is not allowed to answer any questions about the table if the task for the day is holding the cue; nor is the teacher allowed to tell stories about great pool sharks or share anecdotes about a great pool contest. How excited would you be about learning the game? And, since the learning is so slow this way, how long do you think you would try before you gave up in frustration?

This is the kind of learning environment many students and teachers face every day.

The purpose of schooling used to be to teach students the tools they would need to get by in life, including, most particularly, the ability to think and reason, as well as read and write. The current system does not fulfill these goals, and will not, as long as teachers and teaching are categorized, boxed and labeled under the hammer of existing legislation. And the biggest problem is that instead of realizing that this approach doesn’t work, the boxes get ever smaller, the learning tasks more limiting--and, consequently, the learning and teaching less effective.

A Bridge to Excellence?

It is, perhaps, a bridge too far.

Lynda Lambert, a high school and college English instructor, writes from Baltimore's Hampden community.

Core Learning Goals: English (Readers who get this far should be prepared for a test on this information at any moment.)

Goal 1 The student will demonstrate the ability to respond to a text by employing personal experiences and critical analysis.

Goal 2 The student will demonstrate the ability to compose in a variety of modes by developing content, employing specific forms, and selecting language appropriate for a particular audience and purpose.

Goal 3 The student will demonstrate the ability to control language by applying the conventions of standard English in writing and speaking.

Goal 4 The student will demonstrate the ability to evaluate the content, organization, and language use of texts.

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This story was published on August 30, 2005.