Experts Urge Longer Day to Raise Scores

(Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
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By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

To improve middle schools, a Maryland education panel proposed yesterday giving students more class time, ensuring they are ready to complete algebra by eighth grade and enrolling them in a foreign language course by sixth grade.

The Maryland Middle School Steering Committee, a 55-member panel of experts that was launched in 2006, delivered 16 recommendations to the state Board of Education to solve long-standing academic challenges reflected in local initiatives and test scores.

In Maryland, about 81 percent of third-graders show proficiency or better on state-sponsored reading tests and 79 percent in math. Among eighth-graders, 68 percent score at least proficient in reading and 57 percent in math. Educators said they think that students who have trouble in middle school are also at greater risk of dropping out when they reach high school.

Other committee proposals to raise academic performance include providing all students with instruction in fine arts; giving students more practical experience with science, technology, engineering and math; and giving teachers more time for collaboration and planning.

The report's suggestions were broad and included no cost estimates.

Last year, the Montgomery County system started a three-year, $10 million package of curriculum, training and staffing enhancements for its 38 middle schools. Prince George's County School Superintendent John E. Deasy proposed to consolidate elementary and middle schools to serve pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, but his plan stalled because of the slowing economy.

Deasy said he supported the committee's recommendations, particularly strengthening algebra instruction. He said, however, that the costs of an extended school day would be substantial.

"While I would love a longer day, a longer year, the funding of that is a problem," Deasy said.

The school day averages about 6 1/2 hours, said Gerald Scarborough, a co-chairman of the committee who is also the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Harford County schools. The report did not say by how much the school day should to be lengthened, but Scarborough said extending it by a half-hour "would cost us millions" of dollars.

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