Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan – Part II: “We’re All in This Together”

Part II of The Dagger’s Q&A with newly appointed Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan begins with updates on concerns raised by parents over the years, and ends with Canavan’s hopes for the future. Included is a potential breakthrough on a longstanding problem, a snow-related promise and a rejection of “gotcha”.

Parent Concerns:

For many years now, hundreds of applicants interested in vocational/technical education have been turned away from Harford Technical High School due to a lack of space. What are your plans, if any, for students who may not be interested in attending college right after high school. How will their needs be met?

“Well, that definitely has been an issue and we’re starting to address it. In the early summer, I met with [Principal] Chaz Hagan and Joe Schmitz [HCPS executive director for middle and high schools] and we talked about this.

The reality is we’re not poised to get another votech school in some other area of the county, and we have to start to think about how can we avail opportunities [for] kids to take courses that are offered only at [Harford Tech]. Because basically, when there’s no money, you can’t say,’ let’s create these labs at other schools’… the infrastructure’s not there, the space may not be there…

So the first thing that we did was…we form[ed] a comprehensive committee made up of citizenry, of people from Harford Tech and… central office… Right now we’re in very preliminary discussions regarding partnerships with Harford Community College…And looking at the program offerings at Harford Tech and how could we possibly open them up to students that may not have been accepted [into Harford Tech]…”

So some kids would go to Harford Tech for part of the day?

“…That’s something that’s being discussed. The other piece that’s being discussed is…Harford Community College does offer a lot of coursework that possibly our kids could avail themselves of [while they’re in high school].

An example might be, they could attend a comprehensive high school for their content area classes – English, math social studies, etc. – and then attend [Harford Tech] or attend Harford Community College for the coursework they might interested in. It could be [Computer Aided Design], it could be carpentry, it could be electricity. …This really is in very pre-discussion stages, there is nothing that is definitive about this, [but], you know, we’re excited about it…”

Do you have a timeline for implementation?

“I really don’t…but I really want to tip my hat to Harford Community College. They really are very good to us and partner beautifully with us. They have gone out of their way to really help our kids out.”

Everyday Math has been controversial in the parent community for some time. Is it a fit with the Common Core – is EM going to endure?

“…It is a fit because it’s a problem-solving modality, and at this juncture, I would say there really aren’t any discussions to eliminate Everyday Math. However, once we start to get a handle on these PARCC assessments, because obviously instruction and assessment go hand in hand… were going to have to review everything that we do…”

Do you plan on expanding magnet programs, either by adding new programs in other high schools or at the middle or elementary school level?

“We really don’t have any immediate plans.”

Do you plan any immediate changes to gifted education in HCPS?

“There are no immediate plans for gifted education. We are going to be, next year, taking a look at the model to make sure that the model is really servicing kids in the way that it should. And we’re going to put together a comprehensive group of teachers, and parents and administrators to take a look at that.”

What is the status of the study on the North Harford Zone?

“The status is that we will be putting together a group of people to take a look at that. We made that promise publically and we are definitely going to keep that promise. We will make sure that we have parents in that group from the North Harford area, and not [from the North Harford area]…”


“It will definitely be in place for the first snowfall next year. We’re going to work on that and have a presentation for the board in a timely fashion…”

Transportation cuts caused public outcry earlier this school year, and a consulting firm has since recommended new routing software to improve efficiencies. Assuming no increase in funding, is the money available to buy that software?

“We have a software package that we’re looking at now that was purchased a few years ago. We’re going to see whether or not that can help us out. If it does not, we have funds available to fund a package.”

Is it possible that more efficient routes could save enough money to roll back some of the cuts?

“We have no idea because we have to go through the process, and then we would know the answer.”

Flat funding for the budget has been the norm over the past several years and teachers haven’t had a raise in 4 of the past 5 years. If funding is flat again for next year, what will your priorities be for budget cuts – understanding that the board makes the cuts – but you make recommendations about priorities for cuts, among them positions and raises.

“I think I’m going to answer this question in a different way. We want to do everything that we can to maintain the positions that we have and to maintain the class sizes that we have. We want to do everything that we can to compensate all of the employees in some way, shape, or form.

I have no indication right now of what the funding is going to be. I am an optimist to the nth degree. Although I do not believe that our cost of doing business budget is going to be funded, and frankly, we never did believe that. It was a statement along with the priority list to help people to understand the circumstances under which we operate.”

That cost of doing business budget included adding back some teaching positions to bring class sizes back down to the level of last school year. Do you think that class sizes right now are at a tipping point?

“No, I don’t think so… There are larger class sizes than people are used to but not at a point where it is in any way, shape, or form detrimental to the learning of students…We try very, very hard to keep [class sizes] reasonable.

But I have to say… I’m just hopeful about the funding of the budget, let’s just leave it at that.”

Looking ahead

What about new initiatives? You’ve been around for 40 years, you’ve probably said to yourself at least once, if I were in charge, this is what I would do. Is there anything that you would like to talk about that you’re planning in the near future?

“…with everything that’s been thrust upon us, I think it would be presumptuous.

This is what I want. I really do want children to thrive under the new standards and I want teachers to really realize what their strength are under the new teacher evaluation. And I want principals and assistant principals to feel the same way and other employees that work in the system.

I do not want any of this to appear to be a ‘gotcha’, that we’re gonna point out, ‘these are your weaknesses’… Let’s celebrate who you are and what you bring to the table. And then let’s talk about how it can be better for you. Because I think a lot of people don’t realize what strengths they have and I think a lot of people sometimes feel stigmatized when a weakness is pointed out. I don’t care if it’s an 11-year-old or a 54-year-old.

But if it’s done in the right way, and you’re working together to build the capacity of a person, whether it’s a child or an adult, people welcome that. I mean, I certainly do.”

After serving one year as interim superintendent, you’ll start a four-year contract as superintendent in July. Fast forward four years, what do you hope to have brought to Harford County as a result of your leadership?

“I hope that my legacy at the end of four years is to work in this community with people to develop an understanding along with others…that we’re all in this thing together. This is about a quality of life for this community.

Education is a big piece, safety is a big piece, beautification is a big piece, that we’re all working together to create a high quality of life in this county. I think I would want people to know that we’re the real deal here. And we really do believe that working together is gonna make a very big difference for everybody in this county.”

Part I of the interview can be found here.


  1. anonymous says

    I’ve been reading for years about how bad everyday math (now common core) is and my conclusion is anyone complaining about must be as ignorant about the topic as Del McDonut is about everything (really: how that guy gets out of bed and gets his wig on straight every morning is astonishing). My kid is now in 5th grade all through Harford County Schools and my conclusion is that it is an excellent way of learning multiple methods of thinking through math problems. Daily homework has been well structured with good accompanying instruction. As opposed to the old way of teaching elementary math where there is a year of drudging through fractions followed by a year of decimals and smart kids have to sit there and do the same homework night after night because a handful of kids still aren’t getting the one and only one way taught for solving the problem – everyday math is a huge advancement.

    • Bel AIr says

      The Everyday Math program fails more children than you think. The spiral way of learning does not sit well with many kids who learn division one day, don’t have a few days of learning it then move on to probability the very next day. I can almost bet we could cut the amount of IEP’s in elementary school in half if we had a better program. Everyday Math is only a good program for those students who have a firm grasp of math skills and are ready for the higher level thinking. My child is a freshman in a private high school. I removed him from public school in 3rd grade when I was sick of seeing my son waste his time drawing out boxes to do lattuce method math. He got the basic foundation of math in 4th and 5th and is very successful now no thanks to HCPS and their math program.

  2. Sam Adams says

    This little interview confirms for me that Canavan is weak, weak, weak. We have no plans, we have no ideas, we’ll form a committee, we are going to start looking at a software package that we bought years ago. HCPS will be no better off 4 years from now. Just a bunch of platitudes and no concrete action plans. What in the heck are we paying her $200K a year for – lament that so much has been thrust upon her? How about a little problem-solving modality – oh wait that is probably too much to expect from a career principle trained to talk while saying nothing in hopes that no one is really listening.

  3. COLONEL says

    Sam Adams – You contribute often to this site. It would be great if you would take your feel off the ottoman, put your cigar down and get involved as a citizen since you have so much wisdom to impart on so many areas of the education system.

  4. Ed Yutainment says

    “I do not want any of this to appear to be a ‘gotcha’, that we’re gonna point out, ‘these are your weaknesses.’”
    That’s funny, becuase one of the reasons why teacher morale is so low is because of the constant fear that exists; that they are going to be observed at any moment. That is, unless you are one of the fortunate ones who are “in the know” and get a “heads-up” from your friends in the Main Office. It seems like no profession is immune from politics.

    Why do some administrators in some schools announce their observations and others in other schools do not?

  5. Nothing to Fear..... says

    Does it really matter if there is announced observation or not? Shouldn’t we expect teachers to deliver quality instruction every day not just when they know they are going to be observed. By your thinking, if the observation was announced, the teacher better have an excellent lesson since they knew about it in advance or is just satisfactory ok with you?

    • Ed Yutainment says

      Was your last sentence a question or a statement? It does matter: If teachers are informed in advance of an observation, then the standards should be higher. If you assigned the students a “pop quiz” (which is frowned upon in educational pedagogy – except for teacher observations), the standards would undoubtedly be lower than a quiz that was announced.

      If the SATs were unannounced, are you suggesting that the standards should be the same than if they were announced? That is unreasonable.

      Unannounced observations create a climate of fear – ask any teacher.

      Unannounced observations are unreasonable because they never end up being unannounced for all, only those that don’t get hooked up by their friend in Admin.

      Would you rather plan to see a teacher at their best, or try to catch them at their worst?

      • Kharn says

        So maybe the unannounced evaluations should be done by an outside person with no appointment for the administrative staff to exploit?

        Many of us live with the possibility of unannounced safety, fire, health, etc, inspections daily. We work to the accepted standard every day because that is our job, not just because an inspector might stop by. Why shouldn’t a school be the same?

        • Ed Yutaynmint says

          Would the people of Harford County be open to hiring an outside entity to observe the teachers? I’m leaning towards no.

          I agree that unannounced observations are a way of life for many employees, not just teachers. However, with technology becoming more sophisticated, many employees are simply videotaped and observed later – this is not happening in any classroom in the U.S. Therefore, teacher evaluations are entirely subjective and open to multiple interpretations.

          The issue is that the nature of observations (announced vs. unannounced) varies from school to school, and worse from administrator to administrator. This kind of inconsistency would not be accepted in the other occupations you are referring to.

    • unfair says

      The observation process has become unfair because some teachers get a heads up and others do not, mind you in the same school. This is not coming from Admin but from DCs in the building. It becomes unfair when Admin thinks every observation is unannounced and observes everyone equally. I know for a fact that in the same building there are teachers who are not surprised who get highly effective because they have been able to put the dog and pony show while teachers who are not informed have been placed on a plan. It is not fair at all!! The playing field is corrupted because DCs have to keep their cliques and protect thier friends.

      • Ed Yutainment says

        I agree that Department Chairs often play a role. I would add that many administrators bypass the “authority” of the Department Chairs, and give some teachers – who they may have taught with – a heads-up themselves.

        Every observation should be announced – but with more observations. You’ll get the same results without the politics and fear. What makes this challenging is that many administrators don’t have the time…or do they?

        Mr. Burbey – if you are reading this – I know that you’ll be busy in the next couple of weeks – I have a question: Is there a minimum number of administrators (including DCs, and IFs) that need to be present in order to constitute an observation?

        I think a fair compromise would be, the more unannounced the observation, the greater number of observers.

        It has become too easy for an administrator to come into a classroom, by themselves, unannounced, and put a teacher on a plan – regardless of what recourse the teacher may have..

  6. carolwatkins says

    Teachers across the county will begin the process of interviewing for identified positions at other schools. I hope your desire to restore integrity to HCPS will be reflected in this process. Too often supervisors manipulate the system in order to place “favorites” into open positions. Please allow a fair process for all to move to a new school experience.

    • Ed Yutainment says

      “Too often supervisors manipulate the system in order to place ‘favorites” into open positions.”

      So true. It has been facilitating the “Great Migration” of teachers and administrators from the Route 40 corridor to the northern parts of the county…

      …and yet test scores have plateaued at schools in Fallston and Bel Air while the recognition has been given to the hardworking faculties at Edgewood High and Elementary Schools.


  7. Concerned Teacher says

    In regards to teacher evaluations… One of the reasons I no longer teach in HCPS is because of the new teacher evaluation system. I taught at a school where I regularly taught classes to lower achieving students. Sometimes these students were of lower ability, sometimes they were of lower motivation. Often I had classes with 25-30 students that included 10-20 students with IEPs. At one point in my career I willingly taught those classes because I thought I had something to offer them and could help some who might not otherwise be successful. However, when a significant portion of my evaluation as a successful teacher became dependent on how unmotivated, disinterested, and disenfranchised students did on standardized tests that had no bearing on their classroom grades (and in the case of HSAs that they knew they would be given multiple opportunities to pass), it became time to move elsewhere.

    In regards to students who are not interested in going to college… I can imagine the Superintendent’s comments were quite a shock to many of those in Central Office who for years have steadfastly refused to believe that students who were not planning on going to college even existed. The supervisor for my subject area told us repeatedly over several years that “all students were going to college”, and no courses or curriculum should ever be designed to accommodate students who might not go to college because there weren’t any. It is nice to see someone in a position of power who has at least a minimal sense of the reality of life after high school in the 21st century.

    In regards to Everyday Math… It is incomprehensible to me as a teacher and as a parent that traditional mathematical algorithms and memorization of math facts is no longer an acceptable instructional method. It works for the rest of the world that we seem to be constantly trying to catch up to. The alternative problem solving methods taught by EM are just that, alternative. They do not teach students to understand the concepts of higher arithmetic, but instead teach how to take time consuming shortcuts to get the answers to problems without actually knowing why they are the answers. Using partial products, lattice multiplication, partial quotients and the division house are no better than handing a third grader a calculator and teaching him what buttons to push.

  8. Stupid is as Stupid Does says

    The Teacher evaluation process has been changed statewide, not just in Harford County.

  9. AARoberty says

    I have worked with Barbara Canavan and gentlemen, the last person is not Barbara Canavan. I know for a fact that she has much better things to do than to respond on the Dagger.

  10. Jeff Grotsky says

    I, too, knew Barbara Canavan and think she is the best person for the job. Although I always didn’t see eye to eye with her, I respected the work she did at that school. She has way too much sense then to even read the postings on this site.