Part II of an interview with Bill Lawrence, associate superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Harford County Public Schools.
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, 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.
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 II of the text of that conversation, edited only for clarity.
In Part I of the interview, the focus was on issues affecting the school system as a whole. Part II includes a closer look at middle and high school reform; stepped-up efforts to improve SAT scores for high school students; and Lawrence’s response to speculation that he was demoted in Baltimore County before being hired by HCPS.
Dagger: Do you think that magnet programs should be expanded in Harford County to other high schools, to middle schools, to elementary schools?
Lawrence: You’re talking to a former magnet school principal and a person who used to oversee magnet programs…magnet programs are an important component of any educational program. However, our first responsibility has to be to making sure that comprehensive neighborhood schools are as strong as they can possibly be. Magnet schools are only a component of a quality education program. I think the vast majority of parents want their child to attend community schools with high academic standards.
Dagger: Yes, but do you think we have enough magnet schools? Are there any more in the works?
Lawrence: It’s too early for me to make that decision. Right now the only magnet program that we have sort of hanging out in the ‘maybes’ is homeland security.
Dagger: That’s already at, is it Joppatowne High School?
Kranefeld: It’s a signature program,
Lawrence: It’s a signature program,
Kranefeld: …meaning that only Joppatowne students can go there, so it’s not a magnet.
Dagger: So you’re saying there is a possibility that..
Lawrence: Depending on money and depending on a variety of other things, we may want to expand homeland security.
Dagger: Nothing on horizon for middle or elementary school?
Lawrence: No, at this point, no.
Dagger: Do you think our gifted and talented program serves the needs of our top students, currently?
Lawrence: It’s one of the things I’m looking at. Here it’s called accelerated learning and I’m trying to learn as much as I can about accelerated learning.
Dagger: I want to ask a couple of questions with a focus on elementary, middle and high school. We’ll start with middle school because it never gets to be first. When can we expect a roll out of middle school reform, and what can you tell me about what is coming?
Lawrence: Once again I think that roll out has got to wait and be considered with the common core standards. Everything I’ve been briefed on at the state level says that we’re going to completely change the way math is delivered at the middle school level. If that is the case, then I think we need to move forward cautiously in terms of how were going to change, or if we’re going to change middle school math, middle school master schedules, all of those sorts of things.
Dagger: Can you elaborate a little on the math?
Lawrence: Sure. The state has done an analysis of where their voluntary state curriculum is, as it is compared to the common core standards that have been accepted. In that analysis they have identified individual objectives that are taught by grade level and by difficulty, and they’ve assigned them to individual grade levels. For example, if probability in the Maryland curriculum is first introduced in third grade, perhaps in the common core it’s first introduced in second grade. So they’re doing what’s called a gap analysis between those two things to establish a new aligned curriculum that they then must train teachers on. They must make a determination about materials and then we must make a decision about what those courses are going to be called and how they’re going to be sequenced.
Dagger: Ok, you’ve talked about second and third grade, what may change in middle school?
Lawrence: Sure. Algebra concepts are going to be spread across three years as opposed to just one, but geometry and other math concepts are going to be integrated in grades 6, 7, and 8. So our current curriculum for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade math is going to change completely.
Dagger: You talked about a uniform schedule, can you elaborate on that?
Lawrence: I didn’t talk about that.
Dagger: But you said the middle school schedule was going to be standardized?
Dagger: So that is not the case. You don’t envision that will be part of middle school reform? There was a first draft of middle school reform and in that, the schedule was standardized across all middle schools in the county. Are you saying that is no longer a component of middle school reform?
Lawrence: At this moment that is not a recommendation from this office, no.
Dagger: A year ago, Dr. Tomback said that it doesn’t make sense that kids in middle school who take algebra (which is a high school class) and pass the class, and pass the HSA, don’t get high school credit. He said that this would be adjusted. Can you tell me when will students get this credit, will it count for graduation, and will it be retroactive for students in high school now?
Lawrence: Right now the entire process is being studied by a work group that is going to issue its first report in the next week or so, but they issue it to me, and then we’re going to have a conversation with the superintendent and then ultimately a conversation with the board [of education]. But it is in the process.
Dagger: Well, you’re going to get a report in a week, do you know what it says? (Lawrence: No.)Where are you going to fall down on this question?
Lawrence: I’m going to fall down on the recommendation of the group and the recommendation of the superintendent.
Dagger: Well it was the superintendent’s recommendation that they get credit.
Dagger: Am I missing something? Are they going to get credit?
Lawrence: We don’t know, the board of education has to make that determination.
Dagger: I understand that, but a year ago the superintendent said it doesn’t make sense that they don’t get credit, let’s figure out how to get this done. We’re here a year later and I’m trying…
Lawrence: And we’re trying to figure out a way to get it done.
Dagger: What’s the problem?
Lawrence: There’s a procedure that has to go in place. It has to go before the board; it has to go before the general curriculum committee; all of the questions that you just asked have to be answered internally. Is it retroactive? We don’t know the answer to that question right now. Does it take effect immediately? We don’t know the answer to that question.
Dagger: All right, lets move on. Harford Technical High School is our only vocational/technical high school and it has many more applicants than seats, turning away several hundred students each year. Do you think that’s a problem and if so, what should we do about it?
Lawrence: Strengthen the community schools. Either with programs, or policies and procedures that make it acceptable for some families who want to move away from their community schools to feel confident that their children are getting a quality education in their community school.
Dagger: If students are going to Harford Tech because they want to study automotive repair, or landscaping or cosmetology…
Lawrence: We can’t replicate that everywhere, but perhaps we can in their local school give them the academic rigor necessary to be successful in other fields. I don’t think every student who applies to Harford Tech applies specifically for that program and ultimately ends up being an auto mechanic, for example.
Dagger: You’re saying you think the students applying to Harford Tech are not interested in the programs per se?
Lawrence: I think it’s one of the reasons for sure, but it’s not the only reason.
Dagger: So you don’t think there’s a need for additional vocational/technical courses in the county?
Lawrence: I think at this point there is an additional need for STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] programs, which are different from vocational programs and I think we can provide those STEM programs in comprehensive neighborhood high schools.
Dagger: Nationwide, many high school graduates need remedial, non-credit coursework when the go to college, before they can take classes for credit despite often having done well in high school. A recent study in Harford County indicated that among the applicants to Harford Community College who took the [college placement] Accuplacer test, nearly 90% had to take at least one remedial course before they could take certain credits required toward their degree. At the time, Harford County Councilman Dick Slutzky, who is the education liaison to the council, called the results “alarming” and he requested a meeting with representatives of HCPS and the college. But that initiative never moved forward. Do think that this is an issue that the school system and the college should collaborate on, and if so, can you describe any efforts in progress to address the problem?
Lawrence: There are preliminary conversations between leadership here and the new president at HCC to talk about dual enrollment issues; to talk about expansion of a transition math program that we have at two of our high schools, to try to improve student math ability prior to their application; and administration of the Acculplacer to give children a window to see early on where their shortcomings are, so that they can work on those shortcomings. But obviously, we go back to classroom observation, rigor in the classroom and having higher expectations of our children.
Dagger: High school reform (Comprehensive Secondary School Reform Plan/CSSRP) is in its fifth year of implementation. Has student achievement improved?
Lawrence: I think that, not think, I know that you are going to see on the 22nd, [of November, in the State of the System Address] a tremendous improvement in the number of students who are taking Advanced Placement courses; you’re going to see a good percentage of students who are getting threes, fours and fives [passing scores] who take the AP exams. While our SAT scores have been stable, I don’t think we have focused the time and energy that we are now going to, on increasing SAT scores.*
*The 2010 State of the System Address showed increases of nearly 60% in the total number of AP course enrollments and exams taken from 2005 to 2010, and a decline in percentage of tests with passing scores from 65.1% to 61.1%, over the same period. Some students take multiple AP courses and exams. Also from 2005 to 2010, average SAT scores increased by two points in math and declined four points in critical reading.
Dagger: What’s being done regarding the SAT?
Lawrence: We have met with high school principals in the last month.
We have purchased SAT guides that were delivered last week to every high school, to expand the opportunity for young people to have the SAT guide (I’ll loan you a copy,… want to see one?). We are talking with principals about having an SAT coordinator/liaison in each of their schools. That’s something that did happen in Harford County at one point that has not happened in the past, so we’re going to offer that opportunity. A number of high schools are expanding after-school SAT study groups beginning almost immediately, to prepare students – right now trying to focus on students who are juniors because a lot of our seniors have already taken the exam – but after school for kids who still haven’t taken or want to take it a second or third time. We’re meeting with principals to talk about expanding SAT prep, the course, into the master schedule at more schools for next school year. Dr. Tomback has met with them personally and is emphasizing the fact that we need to make a move on SAT.
Dagger: Ok. So back to the original question, has student achievement improved as a result of high school reform?
Lawrence: I wasn’t here, I don’t know where we were five years ago.
Dagger: Do you think that after five years there ought to be an evaluation of the high school reform effort?
Lawrence: Once again, I’ve got to be honest.. I’m just not familiar with it.
Dagger: It was a comprehensive high school reform program that had seven basic tenets. One was to equalize course offerings in all high schools – do we know whether or not that was done? We had a variety of schedules in different schools and some did have a version of the block schedule, but we now have the alternating block schedule that was implemented in every school; the 9th grade course Living in a Contemporary World, that we talked about earlier, was implemented; career clusters were incorporated; a fourth math credit was required; and there was the idea of increasing the number of credits that kids had to take to graduate, locally. So those were some of the seven. Do we know if the objectives have been met and if we don’t, do you think it’s worth finding out?
Lawrence: Oh, certainly.
Dagger: So, will there be a review of this reform effort after 5 years of implementation?
Lawrence: Let’s just take one of them – the four- period A/B schedule. I’m not sure how we would evaluate whether or not it was effective. Help me with what would be the criteria for that.
Dagger: You don’t have any thoughts about how you might evaluate whether that contributed or deterred from improving achievement? One of the things that the schedule did is that it allowed students to take an extra elective. Could we evaluate whether or not that was meaningful? How many additional sections of PE were added as a result of this extra elective? What percentage of our kids are taking ‘office aide’ and ‘teacher aide’, which are non-credit courses, to fill the open spot in their schedules?
Lawrence: I’d have to sit down and look at the report again and try to design something.
Dagger: One of the concerns with the block schedule, which was controversial at the time it was implemented, was that compared to the schools that had a traditional seven period day, with classes every day or rotating , was that the block schedule reduced instruction time, in some cases, over the course of the year by a couple of weeks for each course. Did that improve student achievement, did it detract from student achievement, or did it have no impact?
Lawrence: I don’t…
Dagger: We don’t know?
Dagger: The required 9th grade class, LICW, drew criticism at the time it was implemented, and I’m quoting the report, as a “waste of time”. I know that some improvements have been made and the class is not required by the state for graduation. Will it continue to be a required local course?
Dagger: And will it be part of the review of CSSRP [high school reform], or we just know that it’s keeper?
Lawrence: Right now we just know that it’s a keeper.
Dagger: One of the stated goals of CSSRP that we talked about earlier was to increase the rigor of high school coursework, and the way that was going to be done was to require students to take 26 credits to graduate. How do we know that making students take more credits meant that they took more rigorous coursework?
Lawrence: The increase in AP participation and AP courses is, I think, the most glaring proof that that has increased . We’ve got more students obviously than ever taking four years of math because as of last year it was a requirement. You will see the number of AP courses that have been offered has increased and that the number of students who are taking those courses, as well as the number of students who are taking more AP courses, I think is a real example of how that has occurred. And I think that without the four period day, that would not have been possible. College Board requires a number of those AP courses be double period courses and that can only really happen with a four period day.
Dagger: I’m sorry, College Board requires…?
Lawrence: College Board requires, for example, that their AP science courses be a lab science. If you try to do that in a five period day, you end up taking away instructional time from some other class, because if you leave the instructional time the same for the course itself, and you add in the lab time, you’ve got to take the time away from some other class.
Dagger: How did we do that then, for many years before?
Lawrence: It’s only been the last two or three years that the College Board has required that.
Dagger: It’s a new requirement?
Dagger: So how is it that the block schedule is not required across the nation?
Lawrence: I think that there are schools where they take the time away from elective courses and that’s acceptable, but I don’t think it gets you to where you need to be.
Dagger: Do you think that all high schools should have the exactly the same schedule?
Lawrence: I think that at the high school level, given mobility [of students] and the desire to have equal opportunity, that having the same schedule is very helpful.
Dagger: Well, we’ve had high school reform and middle school reform is in the works, is elementary school reform on the way?
Dagger: I have one last question. Near the end of your career with Baltimore County Public Schools, you were suddenly moved from your position as an area superintendent to a job in human resources. There was speculation at the time by the Sunpaper’s education reporter, in a blog, that you were demoted. Is that true? And would you like to address the issue?
Lawrence: No and no.
Dagger: So, no it is not true, and you would not like to address the issue?
Dagger: Is there anything else that you wanted to address that I didn’t ask?
Dagger: Ok, thank you very much.
Lawrence: Sure thing.