Looking at the organizational chart for Harford County Public Schools in terms of instruction, all roads lead to Bill Lawrence. Hired in late June from Baltimore County Public Schools to be the associate superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment, Lawrence is responsible for reviewing and administering all curriculum and instructional programs in Harford County.
Lawrence’s arrival was part of a management reorganization initiated by his former BCPS colleague, Harford Schools Superintendent Robert M. Tomback. Both Tomback and Lawrence were area superintendents in Baltimore County before coming to Harford County Public Schools.
Lawrence is now the only educator in HCPS reporting directly to the superintendent, with the exception of the executive director of community engagement and cultural proficiency.
Everyone else on the instructional side of the school system – the executive directors for elementary, middle and high school performance; the curriculum supervisors and coordinators; the director of special education; the director of student services; the supervisor of assessments and accountability; the coordinator of professional development and leadership – all report directly to Lawrence.
In the interest of learning more about Mr. Lawrence; his vision, his views and his new role at the helm of instruction for the nation’s 139th largest school system, The Dagger sat down with Lawrence for a Q&A in mid-November. Also in the room for the hour-long interview was Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for HCPS. The following is Part I of the text of that conversation, edited only for clarity.
Among the items of interest in Part I are big changes expected from the state’s adoption of national standards known as the common core, and what that may mean for local programs such as Everyday Math; problems with a student data management system known as Performance Matters; and a move at the secondary level to expand the role of department chairs in teacher evaluations, resulting in changes to the role, or even the existence, of secondary instructional facilitators.
Dagger: So, you’ve been an educator for how long?
Lawrence: I started teaching in 1969.
Dagger: Just briefly, what prompted you to make education a career, was there a moment, or a spark…?
Lawrence: Like a lot of people, I started out wanting to be a teacher probably in mid-high school. I just had always enjoyed school. I was the oldest of five kids and I was one of those people who had, you know, his brothers and sisters in the basement with a chalkboard and chairs, running a classroom.
Dagger: You spent ten years as an area superintendent in Baltimore County before you came here, is that right?
Dagger: Where were you before that?
Lawrence: Before that, I had seven other years in Baltimore County, five of them in an area office, two of them in central administration, and prior to that I worked for seven years in something called private industry council, one in Boston, Massachusetts, and one in Milwaukee.
Dagger: And was that in the education field?
Lawrence: It was a component of the Job Training and Partnership Act (JTPA), which did educational programs and training programs for youth, for adults, for dislocated workers.
Dagger: We don’t have area superintendents here in Harford County, are we getting them?
Lawrence: You have executive directors for school performance, which are the equivalent of area superintendents.
Dagger: Can you describe your duties there in Baltimore County? What was the scope?
Lawrence: The area superintendents there supervise around 30 schools, elementary, middle and high, and were responsible for all the programs and personnel decisions made in those schools.
Dagger: In Harford County, you’re in a newly created position. You’re responsible for all curriculum, instruction and assessment, and that’s pretty much everything involving the educational side of the school system, right?
Dagger: And you’re the only person who reports directly to the superintendent on these matters. It seems like you’re the gatekeeper to the superintendent. Is that accurate? Can you explain how ideas and information flow from the bottom up to the superintendent?
Lawrence: I don’t think I’m the gatekeeper to the superintendent. I think I am operationally responsible for the schools through the executive directors of school performance, and responsible for overseeing and trying to coordinate student services, assessment, and the curriculum offices. To the second part of your question, how does information flow to the superintendent, it flows up through a variety of mechanisms. He has a student advisory council; he has a teacher advisory council; he meets monthly with principals, where he is communicating directly with principals. He obviously has relationships with the PTA council, as well as the other advisory councils that report directly to the board, and in almost all of those cases, I am not either there, or I am certainly not the person that people are communicating to directly. They are directly communicating to him.
Dagger: When you are there, in terms of the organizational chart, you have responsibilities over the executive directors and supervisors, how does that information flow up? Does it go through you first?
Lawrence: I, uh, no (laughing)
Dagger: So, do the executive directors and supervisors meet directly with the superintendent, or…?
Lawrence: Certainly, depending on the issue. An individual supervisor, individually in science, may meet directly with the superintendent. I may or may not be there. Certainly the superintendent continues to have direct access to the executive directors, and makes sure that their projects, or things going on that he initiates, that they have direct contact. And once again sometimes I’m there, sometimes I’m not.
Teri Kranefeld: Leadership team.
Lawrence: Oh, and leadership team. All of those people you just described, not all of the supervisors, but certainly the executive directors are on leadership. We met this morning at 9, we meet every Monday at 9, and in those meetings, he asks questions, they make comments. And that includes not just the executive directors but the supervisor of professional development, the supervisor of intervention, the director of special education, the director of assessment and accountability, as well as some people from Joe Licata’s [chief of administration] side of the shed.
Dagger: Can you talk a little bit about the nature of the working relationship that you have with the superintendent? Do you execute his decisions, are you an advisor to the superintendent, or do you tend to collaborate on decision-making?
Lawrence: I think all three of those things are true, depending on uh..
Dagger: All of the above?
All of the above. Rob and I have known each other for seventeen years.
Dagger: You’re close personal friends, right?
Lawrence: I would say that, yeah.
I don’t know about close personal friends, but we certainly are friends.
Dagger: There’s a management reorganization in progress in the central office, and several senior staff members have come and gone. There are reports that morale is low. Do you see morale as a problem?
Lawrence: I don’t see morale as a problem and I don’t know what management reorganization that you referenced, I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Dagger: This would be the management reorganization that created your position. Do you see morale as important to accomplishing the school system’s educational goals?
Lawrence: I think morale is tremendously important to achieving our goals. I think one of the things that I‘ve been doing is trying to get to know the people and the policies and the procedures that are in place in Harford County, to make sure that I understand how things get done here and understand the personalities and relationships that allow that to be done. I think relationships are the key to this organization, as they are to any other organization, and my responsibility is to work on establishing those relationships and fostering those relationships, both between myself and the people who work in these offices, but also among the offices themselves.
Dagger: So you’ve been with HCPS for five months now?
Lawrence: 4 months and 15 days
Dagger: Ah, not that you’ve been counting
What would you describe as the strengths and weaknesses of our school system?
Lawrence: I think it’s a very good school system. I think that the people that I encounter are professionals. I think one of the testimonies to Harford County Public schools is that the vast, vast majority of people who work in the school system send their children, or have had children in our school system. I don’t think there’s any greater testimony to the school system than that the people who work in it send their children and entrust their children to the school system.
Dagger: What do you think about the locally developed curriculum?
Lawrence: I’m not sure what you mean when you say locally developed curriculum.
Dagger: An example would be the Living in a Contemporary World (LICW) course in high school, a required course that was locally developed. Do you have a general, you can answer that specifically, or do you have a general view of the curriculum, the locally developed portion of the curriculum?
Lawrence: I think that curriculum really falls into two categories, that which we must teach, which is the state curriculum, and I think every jurisdiction develops local elective courses. LICW is just another elective course that in this case students must take in the 9th grade. But all of those curriculum are developed in collaboration with the communities that the schools serve, and therefore are a reflection of that community’s needs, aspirations, desires.
Dagger: What do you think about professional development in HCPS as it’s currently constructed?
Lawrence: I’m learning a lot about professional development. We just did really exciting professional development with William Paca/Old Post and Magnolia Elementary School. We just sat down with MSDE [Maryland State Department of Education] to decide some more professional development on classroom observation with the folks from MSDE. I think we’ve got a strong internal calendar. We’ve got a location which a lot of districts don’t have, in terms of a place to bring people together, to figure out where we’re going to be and how we’re gonna be there. Those things are taken care of, and I think it’s just a continuing challenge to keep up with where the state is going, where the nation is going in terms of curriculum and assessment, and that’s going to be a focus of a lot of the professional development that we provide over the next year or two. I think the superintendent’s emphasis on classroom observation, and the role that classroom observation and teacher evaluation plays in increasing student achievement, is another place where we’re going to be spending a lot of our time.
Dagger: Regarding the teacher evaluation process, do you see that there’s an opportunity for improvement there, in the way that teacher evaluations are conducted?
Lawrence: I think that the observation process itself should be what I’ve always thought of as a prescriptive diagnostic. It should be an opportunity to establish and recognize the cause and effect relationship between what teachers are doing and what children are learning. And that the first question we should ask in any classroom observation is, what is it that we expect children to know and be able to do at the conclusion of the lesson?
Dagger: And who should be doing that evaluation? I understand that there is possibly a movement toward getting principals more involved in that process?
Lawrence: Principals should be involved, assistant principals should be involved, instructional facilitators, supervisors and coordinators from central administration should be involved. It should be a collaborative relationship. We are expanding the superintendent’s initiative to expand the role of department chairmen at the secondary level. Also part of that, as we move forward to get real content experts… I was a history teacher so if I’m observing a French teacher it would be helpful to have someone in there…
Dagger: And that’s new, right? That is something we have not had.
Lawrence: And that is something we have not had, department chairmen that actively involved in the evaluation process, correct.
Dagger: We are coming up on what is likely to be a difficult budget year. Do you think there is fat in HCPS and if so, where do you think it is?
Lawrence: I couldn’t answer that question. Like I said, I’ve been here for four and a half months. The budget analysis is something I leave to Joe [Licata’s] side of the shop.
Dagger: How do you think curriculum, instruction and assessment will be different in HCPS, say five years from now, as a result of your leadership?
Lawrence: I think, hope that, schools will come to see those three offices as being intertwined and that curriculum, instruction, and assessment will be seen as necessary to increase student achievement. And as a support to schools and teachers to better help children help themselves be successful.
Dagger: Will there be any additional layers of management added under you?
Lawrence: At this point, I do not see additional layers of management.
Dagger: Will we have instructional facilitators five years from now?
Lawrence: Right now the superintendent is evaluating and looking at how we do teacher evaluations and observations, and decisions will be made about instructional facilitators as we move forward. Certainly at the secondary level as we move to include department chairmen in the observation process, the role or perhaps even the existence of instructional facilitators will change.
Dagger: Will we have teacher mentors?
Lawrence: Teacher mentors are an important component. Everything that we know about retaining teachers indicates that support at the administrative level, as well as the mentor level… Mentors are mandated by the Education Act from last year and the state is establishing professional development across the state, and Harford County will be a part of it, to provide consistent training for all mentors across the state of Maryland for the summer of 2011, as part of their Race to the Top grant.
Dagger: Professional Learning Communities, will they endure?
Lawrence: As you look at something called CFIP, the Classroom Focused Instructional Program, and Professional Learning Communities are very, very, very similar. As I’ve talked to people all summer long about CFIP and PLCs, I think those two terms are being merged into one.
Dagger: Teachers are reporting problems with the scanners for the new student reporting system, Performance Matters, can you…
Lawrence: There have been scanner issues and we continue on a daily basis to work on the scanner issues and in some cases… right now we’re analyzing whether or not in some of our larger schools we need more scanners.
Dagger: What is the problem with the scanners? The whole idea was that this would save time and allow teachers to get real time data, but some of the scanners are not picking up [the student data]…
Lawrence: Some of the scanners are not picking up… There have been issues regarding the scan sheets themselves but we’re instituting a new program that ‘s never been tried before.
Dagger: Performance Matters is not in use anywhere else in the country?
Lawrence: This particular combination of using both school-generated and teacher-generated tests is new. And it is our hope that, ah, I get a daily report on Performance Matters and the daily report has gotten better every day. We’ve met regularly with the vendor. He has come up here, we’ve had conference calls, and we have people in accountability who are dedicated to making sure that teacher concerns are addressed in a timely matter.
Dagger: Do you know what Performance Matters costs, annually?
Lawrence: I do not.
Teri Kranefeld: No. We can find out for you.*
Dagger: If there is a problem with the manufacturer, is there any opportunity for redress?
Dagger: Do you think that, in terms of organization, schools in HCPS have too much autonomy, not enough autonomy, or just the right about?
Lawrence: It’s something that I’m looking at. I’m a former high school principal, so I’m always going to believe that the best approach to a given problem is going to be in the school. But schools can’t write their own curriculum, schools can’t design their own accountability programs, so once again it’s a symbiotic relationship between what I think of as the three legged stool: administration, which is the executive directors; curriculum and instruction, and the schoolhouse. And those three components of our organization should be working in harmony. So it’s not who’s got more autonomy or less autonomy, it’s how we can we best come together to design programs and policies and procedures to better help children.
Dagger: Can you give me an example of something that principals or schools are responsible for now that you don’t think that they should be, or the reverse, is there something that they ought to have power over that they don’t?
Lawrence: I can’t think of one off the top of my head.
Dagger: There was a proposed grading policy, you might remember this was probably was one of your first assignments upon arriving (Lawrence: Yes.) The policy drew criticism for having rigid assessment categories and because it was not developed in concert with curriculum and Superintendent Tomback asked you to review the plan. What is the status of that review?
Lawrence: We’ll be giving a review of that plan. But in the interim there is an enormous amount of changes that has occurred regarding the common core curriculum and common assessments, and I think that at this point we’ve got to see how that plays out from the state level. The state assistant superintendents meet on a monthly basis and I’ll just talk about English, language arts and mathematics – everything is going to change in the next year or so about how we view that and then the accompanying assessments with that. So how we move forward with deciding on grading policy and percentages and all that sort of stuff, I think we need to be cautious in terms of how all this common core business is going to affect it.
Dagger: So it’s on hold until we hear back from the state?
Lawrence: I don’t want to say ‘on hold’ but I think we need to wait and see what the state says about the common core curriculum and whether or not their plan to move forward is going to, in fact, happen.
Dagger: Any timeline on that?
Lawrence: The state right now believes that they are going to be able to move forward on English, language arts and mathematics by September, 2011.
Dagger: Harford County’s performance on state tests is in the top third in Maryland, but Maryland’s performance on national assessments is only above average, and math students in the US perform below the average for industrialized countries. (Lawrence: Yes.) Is the University of Chicago Math program used in HCPS, helping or hurting our student performance? Specifically, do you think the Transitions textbook in middle school and the Everyday Math program in elementary school helps or hurts students?
Lawrence: I think it certainly helps our students. I think the issue goes back to the common core curriculum and assessments. Their desire is to address increased rigor on the points that you just made. That there’s obviously a difference between the level of expectation in those other countries than there is in the U.S. and as move forward with the common core, the desire is to raise the rigor of K – 12 mathematics and English and language arts. So once those common core standards, which have already been accepted by the state, are internalized, I think that then it is incumbent upon individual jurisdictions, not just in Maryland but in another 36 states [that have adopted the standards], to decide which is the appropriate program that matches those standards.
Dagger: Are you saying that we won’t make that decision at the local level?
Lawrence: I’m saying that the local level is going to be about programs, but the actual common core standards have already been accepted, they’re actually in this room someplace.
Dagger: I’m asking about a particular program. Let’s take Everyday Math, that was a program that was adopted several years ago…
Lawrence: I think that once we get a clear understanding from the state of the common core standards for mathematics… that we’ve got to juxtapose that against Everyday Math and see if we believe that there is an alignment between Everyday Math and all of our math programs, not just the Everyday Math at the elementary level, but our middle school programs and our high school programs, to make sure that those textbooks, intervention programs, all of that, is aligned with the common core standards, and if it is, then were fine and if its not, then we’ve got to go in a different direction.
Dagger: I understand you’re talking about alignment, I guess my question is, are you comfortable with those programs, do you think that they are the best delivery methods for our kids given the standards in place now?
Lawrence: I think our, as you pointed out, our achievement on statewide tests demonstrates that they are working.
*From HCPS: Performance Matters Contract, Year One: $210,000, Each Year After: $185,000
The former data management system was called Inform, which cost $376,619 per year