DENTON - As Maryland's public school systems begin complicated transitions involving everything from curriculum to how teachers and administrators are evaluated, state education leaders made an appearance June 21 in Denton to talk about what educators, parents and students should expect.
Presented by Leadership Maryland and the College Savings Plan of Maryland Board, the Denton visit was the last of six such regional discussions held across the state since the middle of April.
State Superintendent Dr. Lillian Lowery and Maryland State Education Association President Betty Weller spoke to a room of local teachers and administrators, elected officials, parents and community members in the Denton library.
Caroline County Superintendent Dr. Khalid Mumin introduced Lowery and Weller, calling them both true champions of children.
Mumin said he is personally inspired by Lowery, whose leadership style allows more autonomy at the local level, allowing each jurisdiction to do what works for its particular educational culture.
Lowery said she and Weller were making the appearances to appear as a united front.
"We know we won't agree on everything, but we both care about the kids and the educators who serve them," Lowery said.
Maryland is one of 22 states, plus the U.S. Virgin Islands, that have joined the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which will develop a common set of assessments for kindergarten through 12th grade students in English and math.
The aim is to mark students' progress toward college and career readiness from third grade until graduation, while providing teachers with feedback to help them improve their instruction.
New PARCC assessments will phase out the existing Maryland State Assessments for third- through eighth-grade students and High School Assessments for high school students, and are expected to go into effect during the 2014-15 school year.
Lowery said joining PARCC means Maryland schools must adopt the new common core curriculum, a new data system that will provide feedback based on policy questions for instance, looking at where students are 18 months after graduation and a new evaluation system for teachers, which each jurisdiction is doing for itself using a state template.
"There are a lot of things going on at once," Lowery said.
Weller, a Kent County middle school English and science teacher, agreed there is an enormous amount of reform coming, but she said she welcomes the opportunity for change.
"The new standards won't ask students to regurgitate information," Weller said. "We will be asking them to think deeply and become problem solvers."
Lowery added it meant teachers before had to make sure they covered all the material that would be on the state tests; under the new curriculum and assessments, they will be able to slow down and make sure students have a good grasp on a subject before moving on.
A drop in passing rates and scores is expected as students take the new assessments, Weller said. The fact the new tests will be administered online also could affect an area like the Eastern Shore in particular, where broadband internet is not as common.
"There will be a lot of challenges down the road, but I believe students will meet the challenge," Weller said.
Lowery said members of the local business communities can help school systems by providing information on the kinds of jobs for which students should be preparing. Libraries also will be important to help communicate with parents and provide a place for students to gather information.
One parent asked how the phase-in of the new tests will affect her child, who is entering fourth grade in the fall.
At the third- through eighth-grade level, Lowery said, about 1 million students across all states in the consortium will take a pilot version of PARCC next year, while most in Maryland will take the existing MSA. The following year, PARCC will be the only test administered.
It is more complicated at the high school level, Lowery said. Maryland has to decide whether or not to participate in the pilot for PARCC, because high school students still have to pass HSAs to graduate.
"You can see how complicated this is getting," Weller said.
In addition to affecting current teachers' methods, the new curriculum will also affect how new teachers will be taught in college, Lowery said.
"No one should graduate from a teacher prep program not knowing how to read data and make decisions," Lowery said.
In response to a question about special education, Lowery said PARCC will continue to follow an inclusion model that keeps those students in the same classrooms as the general population.
"We will be discussing how to better prepare teachers for all the students who will be in their classrooms," Weller said.
Vocational technology programs are important in the new curriculum, Weller said.
"We can't downplay them," Weller said. "We need good people who want to do hands-on work."
Summer learning and afterschool programs will also continue to be important, Lowery said.
Mumin said he felt like everyone was leaving the discussion more informed about the new wave of reform.
"It's very complex, with a lot of layers, but there's also a lot of local autonomy," Mumin said. "This is not reform in a can."