I came across a job posting for a high-ranking position in the Baltimore County school system that suggests interesting changes may be underfoot as the system tackles recommendations from an independent audit that earlier this year found deficiencies in the district's strategies for educating children.
The job posting --- seen on edweek.org, a national education website --- advertises an opening for an assistant superintendent to oversee the school system's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) office. Some people have been speculating that H.B. Lantz, the system's current assistant superintendent of STEM, would be retiring at the end of this school year in part to make way for wide-sweeping changes in the Curriculum and Instruction department. That department, which includes STEM, was the focus of the independent audit.
The posting reads:
Baltimore County Public Schools
Baltimore County, Maryland
Baltimore County Public Schools is a progressive system of 165 schools and 108,000 students. The system has developed nationally recognized curricula, boasts a rich diversity in its student and teaching population, and continues to initiate innovative programs in both teaching and support services.
The system seeks energetic and visionary candidates for both teaching and administrative leadership positions. The successful candidates will have appropriate certification, demonstrative skills, experience and a knowledge base appropriate to each position.
Baltimore County Public Schools is seeking applicants
for the following position:
Assistant Superintendent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math)
Salary - $134,840
Application materials are available online at website: http://www.bcps.org or by contacting the Office of Personnel Staffing at 1-800-TEACH-BC or (410) 887-4191.
Deadline: June 19, 2007
An Equal Opportunity Employer
Check out The Sun's coverage about the audit:
Schools stymied, audit shows
Baltimore Co. education board, teacher training pinpointed as areas in need of improvement
March 13, 2007
Byline: Gina Davis
A lack of oversight and teacher training have undermined academic progress in Baltimore County schools and perpetuated a minority achievement gap that could take 50 years to close, according to an independent review that found a breakdown between what children need to learn and what is being taught.
In an unprecedented, in-depth examination, the audit found that teachers are inundated with new programs but little direction, and many schools are in disrepair. It also found that "no one is `in control'" of curriculum management - a critical function that includes determining what will be taught and when, ensuring that teachers have the necessary training and tools and measuring whether programs are working before trying something new."They're not giving teachers the right curriculum and professional development," Fenwick English, a lead auditor from Phi Delta Kappa International, an Indiana-based education advocacy group that recently reviewed the system's curriculum and instruction department, said yesterday.
The audit, a 423-page document that includes more than two dozen major conclusions, is set to be publicly released at tonight's school board meeting.
As an example of the lack of teacher training, the audit points out that although the district's technology plan meets state standards, many teachers aren't comfortable integrating computers into their instruction. Auditors said they visited more than 1,000 classrooms that housed about 6,000 computers, but found that only 24 percent of the computers were being used.
While the audit credits schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston for establishing an overarching plan for academic progress, it chided the school board for obsolete and outdated policies - nearly half of which are more than 25 years old - that do little to help shape the educational priorities for the third largest school system in the state and one of the 25 largest in the nation.
English said the system is doing as well as it is in large part because of Hairston's planning guide, called "Blueprint for Progress," but that it is the school board's legal responsibility to set policy so that the district's future doesn't rest upon one person's vision and plan.
"People come and go," said English, who has overseen about 60 curriculum audits since 1979. "The board's policies are the only thing that sticks. It's the only way you can hold your administration accountable."
Donald L. Arnold, the school board's president, said the board began reviewing its policies a few years ago with the goal of updating ones worth keeping and eliminating ineffective ones. The board's plan is that all policies will be reviewed at least every five years, he said.
He said the audit confirmed many of his suspicions.
"Although there are a lot of things we had a general concept about, this gives us proof," he said. "This was a total check-up of the system to help us make sure we're making the best use of our resources, both dollars and people."
Hairston said he plans to follow the team's advice and has already taken the report's recommendation that the district hire a chief academic officer.
About two weeks ago, he named Sonia Diaz, who most recently was superintendent of New Mexico's second-largest school district, to the position of associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
"We're not a bad school system, but we need to improve," Hairston said. "We put ourselves under the microscope because we want to do a better job in preparing our youngsters for the future."
The county school board last summer approved a $245,000 contract to Phi Delta Kappa. The nonprofit organization has reviewed curriculum management in school systems across the country and abroad for nearly three decades.
The executive summary of its report on Baltimore County schools is expected to be available online at www.bcps.org after tonight's board meeting.
With about 106,000 students, the county's schools are spread across rural, suburban and urban communities. State test results show a range of student performance, with some schools internationally known for high performance and others struggling to meet state standards.
For example, results from the 2006 High School Assessment in English showed that 58 percent of the county's students passed the exam, which is one of four tests that students starting with the Class of 2009 must pass to graduate. School-to-school comparisons showed disparities that ranged from 88 percent of Eastern Technical High School's students passing to only 35.5 percent of Woodlawn High School's students passing.
And while the achievement gap - the difference between how whites and minorities perform on the state tests - is narrowing, school officials continue to grapple with ways to eradicate it. In its analysis, the audit team estimated it could take 64 years to eliminate the nearly 20-point percentage gap in reading scores between white and black sixth-grade students.
Hairston said he enlisted Phi Delta Kappa International in August - soon after the system's previous head of curriculum and instruction left for a job in Michigan - because he knew changes were needed, and he wanted an objective evaluation.
A team of 26 auditors spent a week in December visiting 157 schools, including more than 3,000 classrooms, and interviewing parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders. They also analyzed information that directly and indirectly affect curriculum and instruction, including planning guides, budgets and policies.
"The system ... is data rich and information poor. But it's producing more data than teachers can effectively use," English said. "There has to be more professional development to show teachers how to make the data useful in the classroom."
English cautioned against using the audit's findings to make sweeping generalizations and said that the school system's curriculum is strong in some areas, such as English and language arts and math.
"We were in more than 3,000 classrooms and saw some excellent teaching and some excellent schools," English said. "Baltimore County schools are a fine school system. I would put any of my 16 grandchildren in them. I don't think we found anything in Baltimore County that was surprising or shocking, save one thing - the poor maintenance of facilities, which are in deplorable condition."
He also stressed that the audit, called an "exception report," is purposely designed to point out a school system's weaknesses.
"This is not a report card, where you get some As and some Bs and some Cs," he said. "The district is not going to be complimented for when the trains run on time. They're supposed to run on time."
Highlights of consultant's recommendations for Baltimore County schools:
Hire a chief academic officer
Centralize professional development
Enhance assessment of each student's progress so teachers and administrators can adjust instruction
Create five-year plan to align spending with curriculum goals using cost-benefit analysis
Clear backlog of repair and maintenance projects
[Source: Audit by Phi Delta Kappa Curriculum Management Services Inc.]
Board members urge action on school audit
Outdated policies need updating, public agrees
March 14, 2007
Byline: Gina Davis
Although an expert's report lays out a two- to five-year timetable, Baltimore County school board members said last night that children and teachers can't wait that long for changes recommended in an audit of the system's education programs.
"We don't have five years. We don't have five months," said board member Warren Hayman. "We have to take the posture that time is of the essence to meet all the recommendations. ... We need to change the culture of the system. Until we change the culture, we are just spinning our wheels."Last weekend, board members received copies of the audit, a 423-page document that was publicly released at last night's meeting.
Auditors found that a lack of oversight and teacher training have undermined academic progress in Baltimore County schools, according to an unprecedented, independent review that found a breakdown between what children need to learn and what is being taught.
Among more than two dozen major findings, auditors said teachers are inundated with new programs, but receive little guidance on how to use them, and many schools are in disrepair. It also found that "no one is `in control'" of curriculum management - a critical function that includes determining what will be taught and when, ensuring that teachers have the necessary training and tools and measuring whether programs are working before adding new ones.
But some of the team's sharpest criticism was directed at the school board and its policies, which it said "are outdated and inadequate to guide the work of the system."
Of about 280 board policies that the team reviewed, nearly half are more than 25 years old and do little to help shape the educational priorities for the third-largest school system in the state and one of the 25 largest in the nation, according to the audit.
Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's Blueprint for Progress provides direction, but the school board "has neglected its legal responsibility to provide district governance," the audit states.
"The planning we saw was probably the best I've seen in the country," Fenwick English, a lead auditor with Phi Delta Kappa International who has overseen about 60 curriculum audits since 1979, said in an interview this week. "But the board is legally the only body that can institutionalize good practice. And if you have a new board or a new superintendent who doesn't want to use the Blueprint for Progress, they don't have to, if you haven't incorporated that good practice."
The school board began reviewing its policies a few years ago to update those worth keeping and eliminate ineffective ones, Donald L. Arnold, the school board's president, said in an interview Monday after reviewing the audit. The board's goal is that all policies will be reviewed at least every five years, he said.
"This is a process that we'll use to improve our school system," Arnold said during the meeting. "It's not a silver bullet. And it's not something that's going to happen overnight. ... It provides a road map so that we'll be able to go forward."
Arnold said one of the board's next steps is to act on the superintendent's recommendations based on the audit. In an interview Monday, Hairston said he is developing an action plan, which he expects to compile by June.
Cheryl Bost, president of the county teachers union, said the audit echoed many of the concerns that teachers have pressed for many years about frequent changes in the curriculum. "For teachers, we have to master it before we can teach it," Bost said last night.
Jonathan Schwartz, a parent with a daughter in second grade at Chatsworth Elementary School, said the audit supported teacher complaints that they have too much on their plates and he was hopeful school officials will use its recommendations to allow teachers to do their jobs more effectively.
"I think the board took it the right way. It's a challenge, not a criticism," Schwartz said.
The county school board last summer approved a $245,000 contract with Phi Delta Kappa, a nonprofit organization that has reviewed curriculum management in systems across the country and abroad for nearly three decades.
A team of 26 auditors spent a week in December visiting 157 schools, including more than 3,000 classrooms, and interviewing parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders. They also analyzed information that directly and indirectly affects curriculum and instruction, including planning guides, budgets and policies.
The team's report is called an "exception report," which means it's designed to point out weaknesses. The executive summary of the audit was expected to be available online at www.bcps.org.
School system flunks repair
Baltimore County audit reveals pressing maintenance issues
March 19, 2007
Byline: Gina Davis
As she walks the hallways of Mars Estates Elementary, Principal Linda M. Chapin says she knows about the rusty bathroom stalls, the cracks that crisscross the terrazzo flooring, the missing wall tiles here and there. She also knows all too well that while her office might be baking at 80 degrees, other rooms are quite chilly.
But she also sees the sparkling new windows and blinds installed last year that send sunlight streaming into classrooms, the cafeteria and gymnasium of the 57-year-old school."Some of the old windows, you couldn't see through them," says Chapin, who has been principal at the Essex school for three years. "But we're an old building, and you get some dents."
When auditors descended upon Baltimore County's schools late last year to zero in on the weaknesses of the system's plans for teaching children, they expected to find the typical lapses in communication between top administrators and teachers, poor coordination of new programs and insufficient training. But the team, which included former and current superintendents, teachers and administrators from across the country, said they were shocked to also find school buildings in extreme disrepair.
"This is the one where you flunked," Fenwick W. English, the lead auditor of the independent review, told school board members last week during their meeting. "One of your principals said, `If it doesn't arc or spark ... no one is going to come by and get to it.'"
English added that it was difficult to fathom how teachers are able concentrate and teach in those schools and said "the repairs that are needed really kind of broke our hearts."
School board members and administrators said the auditors rightly noted deficiencies, and they stressed their commitment to improving those conditions. But, they added, the district has some of the state's oldest schools, and county and state funding consistently falls far short of the system's needs.
Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said last week that he is perplexed by criticism of the school system's buildings -- especially the elementary schools, which were recently renovated at a cost of $280 million in county and state funding.
"We're putting a lot of funding toward bringing schools up to a reasonable standard," he said. "It's clear we have a major systemic problem, and we're addressing it."
Smith said he is troubled that principals and other school employees feel they must tolerate deteriorating buildings.
"That [the school system] would institutionalize such a low standard of expectation is a real concern to me," he said.
Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said that the school system realizes that every school isn't in top-notch condition but that the district is responding as efficiently and quickly as possible to the building needs.
"If we had a fully funded maintenance program for 10 years, there would be no problem," he said. "We know we have limited resources. We move on, and we take care of the things we can."
English said the audit team found schools with such poor climate control that temperatures in different areas of a building ranged from extremely cold to extremely hot. They came across stained or missing ceiling tiles, drafty windows, safety hazards and plumbing problems, he said.
After visiting 157 schools -- and peering into more than 3,000 classrooms -- the team found a "significant number" of them in poor condition.
The audit team heard a consistent groan of frustration from school administrators, especially principals, about the slow pace of repairs and routine maintenance, said English, who has overseen about 60 curriculum audits since 1979 for Phi Delta Kappa International, a nonprofit group that analyzes curriculum management for school systems.
"Many interviewees reported that facilities in BCPS were in a state of crisis," the team wrote in a 423-page audit released last week.
"This is a problem, and it's not just aesthetic," English said during the board meeting. "This is a problem of learning and teaching in facilities that are conducive to improving achievement for all students."
Michael G. Sines, the school system's executive director of facilities, said he empathizes with principals' frustration. To improve the system, he added this year a computerized maintenance request system that enables administrators to place work orders and track them.
"What Dr. English's team observed didn't occur overnight," Sines said. "It is the direct result of the number of years of facilities being underfunded."
He said that progress has been made in recent years because of additional county funding targeted at renovations but that it will take much more to bring all buildings up to par. He estimated it could cost $1.25 billion -- and take until 2033 -- to renovate the county's 24 high schools, assuming an average of $23 million a year in state funding.
Given the unlikelihood of such substantial funding, Sines said the district has been done partial renovations at the elementary and middle schools, which include installing or refurbishing air conditioning, plumbing and lighting systems; asbestos abatement, and boiler and window replacements.
"These are substantive, critical components," he said. "It's not going in there and putting a Band-Aid on it."
During last week's board meeting, English recommended that the school system act swiftly to stem the problem and suggested the district consider outsourcing and privatizing maintenance to eliminate the backlog.
"Maintenance will eat you alive because one thing will lead to another will lead to another will lead to another," he said. "And you're reaching that point in some of your schools."
Cheryl Bost, president of Baltimore County's teachers union, said she was pleasantly surprised to learn that the auditors raised concerns about deteriorating school conditions. She said it was interesting to hear an outsider's perspective, given that it was only a few weeks ago that the school board rejected a proposal to raise wages for the system's lowest-paid employees, including custodians.
"We kind of work through it all," she said. "But the working and learning environment makes a difference for teachers and students."
At Mars Estates, Chapin says she wants the best for her staff and students, and would rather focus on teaching than maintenance problems.
"But I am realistic," she said. "I know I'm not the only one."
** Examples of poor conditions in Baltimore County schools **
Auditors found that about 40 percent of schools had "noteworthy deficiencies," and problems with maintenance were an issue in almost half of the schools. Examples include:
Safety and security hazards
Fire sprinklers installed upside down at two unidentified schools
Electrical wires strung across the floor at Woodlawn Middle School
Books stored near hot-water pipes
High windows on hallway doors make it difficult to see small children at Catonsville Elementary School
A cracked glass front door at Overlea High School
A boarded-up bathroom window at Rosedale Center High School
An electrical outlet in need of repair at Milbrook Elementary School
Warped window blinds at Woodlawn High School
Children being taught in a crowded hallway at Villa Cresta Elementary School
Desks and cabinets stored in a hallway at Cedarmere Elementary School
A culinary arts cafe in a narrow hallway at Carver Center for Arts and Technology
[Source: Phi Delta Kappa International, "A Curriculum Management Audit of the Baltimore County Public School District"]
School board weighs overhaul's cost, timing
Audit raises concerns, but priorities are an issue
March 21, 2007
Byline: Gina Davis
Baltimore County school board members raised concerns last night about funding, timing and priorities as they began sifting through nearly a dozen recommendations from an independent audit that suggests overhauling many of the system's educational policies, plans and strategies.
While their consensus was that the board should act swiftly, they had a harder time deciding what their immediate next step should be.Several members stressed the need to improve school facilities, which auditors described in their report as deplorable. Others pointed to items higher on the list of recommendations that deal more directly with curriculum, such as hiring a chief academic officer and revamping the way the system determines what children must learn and how it will be taught.
"When we talk about maintaining a safe and orderly learning environment, we define that as being one of our primary responsibilities," said board member John A. Hayden III, who added that auditors pointed out hazardous conditions in several schools. "This particular [finding] is troublesome. I very strongly encourage that we move to address that issue immediately."
Member Meg O'Hare said other items that appear higher on the auditors' prioritized list of recommendations would be more realistic to quickly address, because they don't require an infusion of money - such as expecting greater collaboration among employees who oversee curriculum development, teacher training and program assessment.
"Safety issues are simply unacceptable," she said, adding that "some of the things require a culture change, not more money."
The unprecedented independent audit, compiled in a 423-page report released last week, found that teachers are inundated with new programs but given little direction, and many schools are in disrepair. It also concluded that no one was in charge of overseeing curriculum management, a critical function that includes determining what will be taught and when, ensuring that teachers have the necessary training and tools and evaluating programs.
The recommendations urge school officials to do a better job of evaluating whether new academic programs are working for students, training teachers to make classes more engaging and ensuring that children have equal access to programs and services.
Fenwick English, a lead auditor who oversaw Baltimore County's project, said last week that the recommendations could take up to five years to implement across the state's third-largest school system.
With about 106,000 students, the county's schools range from those internationally known for high performance to others that struggle to meet state test standards. And while the achievement gap - the difference between how whites and minorities perform on the state tests - is narrowing, the audit team estimated it could take 50 years to close the gap in some academic areas, if no changes are made.
To help close the achievement gap, auditors recommended devising a system that ensures students have equal access to comparable programs and services, such as special-education, gifted and talented, and Advanced Placement courses. Auditors said many students are limited in their access to highly qualified and experienced teachers, magnet programs and participation in AP courses, depending on where they live.
In response to complaints that new programs are haphazardly introduced, the audit recommends that the school system centralize professional development and routinely evaluate teacher training. It also stressed the need to improve the evaluation of students' progress so teaching strategies can be adjusted.
Cheryl Bost, president of the Baltimore County teachers union, said the audit confirmed many of the concerns that she and other teachers have pressed for years.
"We've been saying for probably eight years that curriculum is just coming at us," Bost said in a recent interview.
She said she hopes school officials will consult with teachers as they work toward implementing the audit's recommendations, especially since many of the changes are likely to affect how and what teachers are expected to do.
Auditors - who visited 157 schools, including more than 3,000 classrooms - said they found instruction to be relatively static, with most teachers favoring the "less effective lecture format with students engaged primarily in listening, taking notes, and completing worksheets," despite county and state guidelines that call for a variety of teaching strategies, according to the audit. The team said it saw few instances of hands-on projects and activities.
At Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's recommendation, the county school board awarded a $245,000 audit contract to Phi Delta Kappa International, a nonprofit group that has reviewed curriculum management in school systems across the country and abroad for nearly three decades.
Among the audit's top recommendation was that the district hire a chief academic officer to oversee curriculum development and management. A few weeks ago, school officials announced that Sonia Diaz, who most recently was a superintendent in New Mexico, ' is expected to start April 1 as associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
Hire a chief academic officer.
Centralize professional development.
Develop a format for creating curriculum guides that help ensure consistent, rigorous instruction.
Adopt school board policies that articulate priorities and strategies.
Better assess each student's progress, so teachers and administrators can adjust instruction.
Require systematic reviews of academic programs.
Develop easy-to-use databases to help teachers and administrators plan instruction.
Create five-year plan to match budget decisions with educational goals using cost-benefit analysis.
Devise a system that ensures children have equal access to programs and services.
Clear backlog of repair and maintenance projects.
Update relevant policies and make necessary improvements for the county's five special programs: prekindergarten, special education, gifted and talented, English for Speakers of Other Languages and magnet schools and programs.
SOURCE: Phi Delta Kappa International, "A Curriculum Management Audit of the Baltimore County Public School District"
Activists seek changes in schools curriculum
Department needs leadership change, they say
March 27, 2007
Byline: Gina Davis
As Baltimore County school officials begin to make significant changes based upon a far-reaching audit of the system's educational plans, some local activists are pressing for an overhaul of the staff that directs what is being taught in classrooms.
Community leaders are calling for a makeover of the staffing in curriculum and instruction - a department of at least 200 employees who introduce and manage classroom programs."We need a fresh start, and that means necessary changes at the top," said Pat Ferguson, president of the county's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "I'm not going to name names, but they need to be replaced."
Ferguson, who has served on the school system's Minority Achievement Advisory Group since the early 1990s, said only those in the curriculum and instruction office who are qualified and philosophically prepared to implement the audit's recommendations should remain.
Ella White Campbell, a fellow advisory group member and community activist, said the audit's findings reiterated concerns that she and others have expressed for years to the curriculum and instruction department's leaders.
"If you keep the same people, they're going to keep doing the same things they've been doing," said Campbell, a former English teacher. "Teachers are overwhelmed by too many canned programs that have not been tested."
Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who asked for the audit last summer, not long after the system's previous head of curriculum and instruction left for a job in Michigan, said he couldn't comment on personnel-related matters such as calls for staff changes.
Since July, the office has been led by two assistant superintendents, Kathleen M. McMahon and H.B. Lantz.
McMahon said yesterday that she understands people might question the department's staffing, adding that as difficult as it is to hear the criticism, it is helpful.
"We exist to support teachers as they work to instruct students," McMahon said. "Dr. Hairston is expecting us to respond very quickly to this audit, and he'll be looking to see are our personnel embracing the recommendations and acting as rapidly as possible to make the necessary revisions."
The audit, compiled in a 423-page report, found that teachers are inundated with new programs but are given little practical guidance. It also found that "no one is `in control'" of curriculum management - a critical function that includes determining what will be taught and when, ensuring that teachers have training and tools, and measuring whether programs are working before trying something new.
McMahon said the office has begun addressing key issues from the audit, such as the lack of consistency in the curriculum guides that teachers use to help develop lessons. She said that until about four years ago, the department was broken down into two main divisions: elementary and secondary schools. Since then, the office has begun a transition to developing curriculum across subject areas, such as reading, from prekindergarten to 12th grade. After the transition is complete - and a format for all guides has been established - the curriculum should have greater consistency, she said.
"We'll look to our teachers to provide us with how the guides can be more helpful to them," McMahon said.
Recently, school officials hired Sonia Diaz, who most recently was a superintendent in New Mexico, to be the system's associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. She is expected to start next week.
Carmela Veit, a former Baltimore County teacher and past president of the county's PTA council, said an increasingly inexperienced teaching corps has made it imperative to have clear curriculum guidelines.
"More than 60 percent of our teachers have five or less years' experience," said Veit, also a former president of the state PTA who supervises teachers who are earning master's degrees in education at the Johns Hopkins University. "It's important for beginning teachers to have something that has specificity.
"In the past, we could've counted on seasoned veterans to help the [younger] teachers," Veit said. "The audit adhered to the principle of having curriculum guides as instructional tools to guide teachers and help students obtain certain goals. I think we've moved away from that."
The audit's 26-member team said it heard from many principals and teachers who complained that teachers find it difficult to adapt the curriculum to children's varying needs and abilities.
Patricia A. Lawton, principal at Red House Run Elementary, said the audit's recommendations can help administrators refine classroom strategies.
"We really need to further our efforts in differentiation in the classroom so we really can reach all of our children," she said. Through differentiated instruction, teachers are encouraged to work toward common academic objectives using a variety of strategies, such as small group settings, based upon each child's needs and abilities.
Lawton said more must be done to ensure that teachers know how to adjust their instruction. At Red House Run - which this year was named one of seven Blue Ribbon schools across the state - Lawton said she includes teachers in discussions about how best to address the academic goals.
"As long as we're trying to make a difference with the children, we allow the risks to be taken," she said. "We have a common objective, but there are different ways to get there. No one size fits all."
Harry C. Walker, principal at Sandy Plains Elementary, said he sees the audit as a roadmap for creating a systemwide professional development plan.
"It's how well teachers are learning that determines how well children are learning," Walker said. "The audit has provided the structure to move forward as a school system."
`Assertive' leader to apply audit
Diaz to oversee Baltimore County school changes
March 7, 2007
Byline: Gina Davis
Baltimore County school officials have hired a longtime educator, who was fired from her last job, to oversee what and how children are taught - matters explored in a soon-to-be-released independent review.
Sonia Diaz, who most recently was superintendent of New Mexico's second-largest school district, is scheduled to start next month as associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Her appointment coincides with the coming release of a 400-page evaluation of the county school system's strategy for teaching youngsters.Diaz, who describes herself as an "assertive" leader, was dismissed after four months as head of the Las Cruces public schools in New Mexico after employees criticized her management style, the former head of the school board there said.
But after announcing her hiring last week, Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said he isn't troubled by Diaz's work history because he believes she has the right priorities.
"We needed someone who understands leadership," said Hairston, adding that he has known Diaz for about 10 years. "Here's someone who has experience and a track record with regard to bringing about academic achievement in more challenging school systems."
Hairston said the experience in Las Cruces, where Diaz was the fifth superintendent in five years, isn't an accurate reflection of her effectiveness.
"They have given away every competent superintendent because they don't want to change," he said. "Superintendents are lightning rods. People will make them the bad guys when they don't agree. She had the courage to stand up for the rights of children."
Diaz said she has researched Baltimore County school system's strengths, such as initiatives to strengthen science and technology education. She said she plans to follow the curriculum audit's recommendations, and talk to teachers, administrators, parents and students.
"The crux of so much of what has to happen depends upon the strength of the curriculum, the rigor of the curriculum, the content of the curriculum and the alignment of the curriculum to statewide standards," she said. "I want to get to know what has been working well for the school system and build on that."
In August - soon after the system's previous head of curriculum and instruction left for a job in Michigan - Hairston enlisted auditors from Phi Delta Kappa, an Indiana-based education advocacy group, to review the system's curriculum management.
Fenwick English, one of the group's lead auditors, said its review would define the system's weaknesses by analyzing curriculum documents, plans, budgets and policies. Auditors spent a week in December interviewing parents, students, teachers, administrators and community leaders.
Hairston declined to discuss details of the audit until its scheduled release next week but said that the report includes "a strong finding of a need for leadership." He said he will follow its recommendations.
A well-run curriculum and instruction department is critical because it sets the bar for what students need to learn and how teachers will accomplish that, said Margaret Trader, a visiting professor at McDaniel College and former assistant state superintendent for instruction.
"Children are held accountable for school performance on state tests, and we need to make sure that the curriculum is aligned with the expectations of those assessments," Trader said.
Diaz began her education career in 1973 as a first-grade bilingual teacher in Boston. She earned her doctorate in 1996 from Harvard University in education administration, planning and social policy.
She was deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Miami/Dade County schools, superintendent of Bridgeport, Conn., schools and superintendent of Community School District 1 in New York City's school system.
She spent four years overseeing schools in Bridgeport. Although she accepted a buyout after a shift in the school board's composition eroded her support, she also earned acclaim for educational reforms amid controversy. She was among those credited when Bridgeport was named a finalist last year for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, which recognizes districts for overall academic progress while reducing achievement gaps for poor and minority students.
Greg Firn, superintendent of the nearby Milford, Conn., school system, said Diaz was successful during a time when Bridgeport's mayor, who appoints the school board, was convicted on corruption charges.
"She was able to rise above that political climate and put a lot of things in place that are still in place today," Firn said.
The Las Cruces school board placed Diaz on administrative leave in November while it investigated complaints that employee morale was suffering under her management, said Sharon Wooden, who was then president of the school board. Diaz was fired in January.
Diaz said that while she sets high expectations, she considers herself even-handed. She declined to talk in detail about Las Cruces because she filed for court arbitration after the board's decision, saying only that "some places just are not a good fit."
"She was very bright and very knowledgeable. But her management style just didn't work with our school district," said Wooden, adding that Diaz attempted to make changes too soon.
Cheryl Bost, president of the Baltimore County teachers union, said she is hopeful that Diaz will collaborate with teachers in efforts to adopt the curriculum audit's recommendations.
"We don't want a top-down approach," Bost said. "We hope she has the will and the desire to work with us and with the teachers."