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April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

How Maryland Communicates Change

Teachers make invaluable partners for informing parents and for building support for state reform efforts.

When Maryland began its full-fledged program of school reform in the early 1990s, accountability was in its infancy and standards were still nascent. Prompted neither by legislation nor by a court-ordered mandate, the self-imposed program was an ambitious promise to a public that was growing increasingly disenchanted with its schools. According to a state-sponsored poll, of the 94 percent of parents who believed that education reform was in order, 36 percent wanted a complete overhaul of the public schools (Research/Strategy/Management, 1995).
With the climate for change firmly established, we had a head start on implementing a school improvement agenda based on high standards and strict accountability. But we soon realized that sustaining and expanding change required reassessing not only how we communicate but also with whom we communicate. By sharing our experiences, we hope that others who are involved in the reform process will gain insight and ideas.

The Maryland School Performance Program

In 1989, the state department of education released the Maryland School Performance Program report. The report challenged education leaders to break with a past concerned more with inputs than with outcomes and tolerant of low expectations for traditionally under-challenged populations. Appropriately, the report's first recommendation drove the rest of our efforts: identify and measure those things we value about learning. By December 1989, we had established an office to oversee the implementation of the recommendations. Six months later, we had convened groups to design and set content for assessments that would function as the state's primary performance measure.
In 1991, we unveiled the assessments that would become the cornerstone of our reform efforts: the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), a series of tests administered in grades 3, 5, and 8 that aggregates results at the school, system, and state levels. We faced a public supportive of change but unhappy with the tests' looks and implications. By and large, stakeholders couldn't reconcile the reform's packaging with their own expectations for schools. To be fair, there were many reasons for the confusion.
In short, parents were skeptical. But so, too, were educators. Just 56 percent of teachers polled in a 1995 survey supported MSPAP (National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, 1996). With the release of a study by the Education Commission of the States (1996) that estimated that 89 percent of parents rely on teachers for school-related information, the need to win teacher support and to teach teachers to communicate state reform efforts to parents was clear.

Learning to Listen

Standing between the seemingly vast educational bureaucracy and the family, teachers are vested with an influential power that we had overlooked. We knew that we needed to communicate quickly and consistently with teachers and parents. But we didn't know that in helping us communicate with parents, teachers would begin to believe in the value of the testing program and to support the instructional changes that the program was designed to achieve.
Working together, teachers and state administrators developed better and more diffuse outreach. Teachers brought insights from the frontlines of school reform and taught valuable lessons to state education officials. For example, teachers heard parent concerns about a handbook that the state was developing for parents of students in grades 3, 5, and 8—the grade levels tested each May—to explain the reform process. Teachers reported that a small, but vocal, cadre of parents objected to the handbook's format. Parents criticized placing test-related information, such as retired test items and sample responses, at the beginning of the book. Instead, they wanted to know how the tests would promote better day-to-day instruction and how accountability was driving the changes that parents demanded of their neighborhood schools. As a result, we moved the assessment features farther back in the handbook and outlined instructional implications in detail.
The final publication became a popular tool for teachers and administrators to use in their own engagement activities. As teachers increasingly acted as information vendors, they soon found that they, too, needed to communicate clearly to parents. Slowly, talk of "higher-order thinking skills" was supplanted with the explanation that teaching students how to apply the basics required a mastery of the basics themselves. In short, we learned to listen to the language of reform and to choose our vocabulary carefully.
Our efforts resulted in increased teacher support for MSPAP. Five years into MSPAP, a survey revealed that 78 percent of teachers saw the program as important for high standards; 75 percent believed that it provided data necessary to implement improvements; and, most important, 71 percent found MSPAP an important tool for measuring school performance (Mason-Dixon Campaign Polling & Strategy, 1998).
Another benefit of working with teachers was a clearer understanding of which constituent concerns were attributable to test content, design, or administration and which were by-products of inadequate or erroneous information. The most common MSPAP-related complaint six years into testing was that the assessments could not, by design, produce reliable student results. In response, we secured funding to annually administer a nationally normed test to complement the MSPAP. Now individualized reports provide parents a clear indication of how well their child's performance meets local and state standards. It's a move that has won us some valuable support as we expand our reform efforts to the high school level. The Maryland high school assessments—high-stakes exit exams—are less than two years away.

Lessons Learned

This time we are prepared. A study conducted in 1996 at the high school improvement program's developmental stage found that the public links MSPAP with the high school assessments (Research/Strategy/Management, 1997). Improve acceptance of the former, therefore, and we remove obstacles for the latter. This observation substantiated our early experiences with MSPAP: The best spokespersons for improving the perceptions of reform are teachers.
Our first challenge was to overcome teachers' feelings of disenfranchisement from the state department of education and their mistrust of the reform process. This mistrust stemmed from the unanswered questions that littered our public discussions and detracted from the evolutionary nature of the high school assessments. We persuaded teachers and principals that we didn't have all the answers and that we needed their help to formulate questions. We let them know that their suggestions would help shape our understanding of the testing program and its challenges and implications. Thus began an outreach campaign based on some of the valuable lessons we learned.
Keep furnishing information. We have held more than 500 meetings with teachers, administrators, supervisors, local boards of education, and parents. As a follow-up, we submit to the state board of education a scrupulous monthly log of those meetings and the number of people served. Over the first three months of the 1999–2000 school year alone, we've served approximately 3,500 stakeholders, three-quarters of whom are teachers.
We've learned to sustain the flow of information, even when we think that we can let up or that the message has permeated our districts. Continual staff turnover requires continual communication. We routinely revisit districts and schools and always issue a standing offer to come back as many times as is warranted.
Take advantage of technology. We know that we can't be everywhere at once. We augment our decidedly low-tech efforts with a high-tech solution. The department's Web site (www.msde.state.md.us) dedicates several pages and links to the high school assessments and related reform initiatives. There, parents, teachers, students, and others can view Maryland's Core Learning Goals, which serve as the assessments' basis; take model tests; view scoring rubrics and sample answers; score themselves and sample responses; and contact members of our high school assessments team. Following the second field-test administration, we will post the full text of each assessment.
Adapt processes as the project evolves. As the nature of our project changes, so does how we communicate. When the high school assessments evolved beyond the conceptual stages, and the curriculum was in place to support the tests, the teams created to lay the curricular groundwork ceded their place to a technical assistance group that we established to hammer out the logistical details. Like those before it, the group's membership includes business leaders, teachers, administrators, and parents. Our intent was plain: Because each detail had profound implications, no detail would be decided in isolation. We encouraged districts to set up their own technical assistance groups to reach all stakeholders.
Make engagement meaningful. Beyond meetings, there's more substantive work to be done. Last summer, teachers—content area specialists, vocational teachers, special education teachers, and ESL teachers—wrote more than 2,000 potential test questions. Additional groups of educators checked the questions for accuracy and appropriateness; another group checked for bias. Aside from the advantage of having our most knowledgeable and experienced professionals drive development, we recognize that investment on the front end naturally begets acceptance on the back.
Show evidence that feedback influenced policy. Engagement alone won't help your cause unless you can show your stakeholders how their suggestions have affected the project's design or implementation. Along with feedback substantially influencing staff development, academic intervention, test design and duration, and accommodations for special-needs students, the outreach we conducted changed our testing calendar dramatically. Originally intending full and immediate implementation, we agreed to a phase-in schedule after teachers and principals encouraged us to start slowly and scale up to 10 tests over time.
After 10 years, we have gained valuable perspective into school reform and accountability. We know that more challenges lie ahead: Will the waters be this calm in 2002 following the first full-scale administration of the high school assessments? What will happen in 2004, when some students approach graduation without having passed all the tests? How about a few years after that, when colleges and employers report finding applicants better prepared for the classroom and workplace?
We also know that improvement takes change and that change is a dynamic enterprise. Many of the messages we craft today have a short shelf life. Some, however, are timeless: All children can learn. All children have the right to attend schools in which they will succeed. All children shall have a real opportunity to learn equally rigorous content. These principles of equity and accountability laid the foundation in Maryland for a reform mandate issued a decade ago. And despite the white noise that often obscures wholesale reform efforts, they embody the premise, and the promise, of every change we undertake.
References

Education Commission of the States. (1996). Listen, discuss, and act: Parents' and teachers' views on education reform. Denver, CO: Author.

Mason-Dixon Campaign Polling & Strategy. (1998). MSPAP Survey. Annapolis, MD: Author.

National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. (1996). Perceived effects of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. Los Angeles: Author.

Research/Strategy/Management. (1995). Education site survey: State of Maryland. Lanham, MD: Author.

Research/Strategy/Management. (1997). Maryland public school survey. Rockville, MD: Author.

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