THERE'S nothing radical about the elementary and secondary school reforms the Maryland State Board of Education accepted last week. The proposals -- more summer school, mandatory kindergarten, more parent involvement -- result not only from a long-in-preparation study by state school superintendent Joseph Schilling but also from numerous similar reports and reforms that have been generated over the past few years across the country. Maryland suffers from the typical range of education troubles, with its districts ranging from the confidence of Montgomery County to the sometimes surreal chaos of Baltimore. Baltimore could get $75 million extra for the schools under one of the proposals that the state board has accepted -- though the whole package must now go to the legislature.
For the most part, the Schilling-inspired reforms that were accepted wouldn't be overly expensive, though no one expects much new money to be available in the current climate. That squeeze is likely responsible for the board's hesitancy on the most dramatic of the proposals it finally rejected: a move to add 20 more school days to the 180-day Maryland school year. Lengthening the school year is one of those reforms backed by a staggering weight of educational theory -- and, remarkably, of common sense too -- but nearly impossible to bring about in political practice. In this case, the sticking point was the $187 million projected price tag for the first year; the entire package as passed comes to $176 million without it.
But the cautious argument has also been heard that other parts of the reform legislation will theoretically increase the amount of time Marylanders spend in school -- with kindergarten now mandatory and the minimum dropout age raised from 16 to 18 -- and that most of the other provisions are directed at making school hours into time better spent. Though the idea of longer school years is a good one, this reasoning deserves to be heeded. If teachers are being trained and materials designed for a curriculum that wastes time, then increasing that time serves nobody. The board could still choose at its next meeting to reverse itself and go ahead on a longer school year, but with the more modest reforms it is at least taking its steps in the right order.