By TAYA FLORES, Capital News Service
BALTIMORE - Consultants hired by the state school board have found that the performance of Maryland's elementary and middle school students has improved, but they stopped short of crediting the improvement to more than $1 billion in increased funding, some of which has come as a result of a state education reform law.
"Whether one caused the other we can't say at this point, but we will do more statistical analyses to see the relationships," said Jerry Ciesla, project director for the national consulting firm MGT of America.
MGT found that student proficiency scores increased in math and reading by about 17 percent in grades three to five from 2003 to 2006.
The improvement in reading for middle schools was less significant with a 10 percent improvement, but math proficiency scores increased by about 21 percent in grades six through eight from 2003 to 2006.
The increased funding was part of the 2002 Thornton Commission education reform law that required the state to provide additional funding to increase student achievement by 2008. The MGT report looked at the improvements in student test scores, effective teaching practices, curriculum, increased funding and how the funds have been spent.
Since the Thornton law took effect, local school systems have seen an increase in funding of $1.15 billion. That includes money from the local, state and federal sources. The report found that state funding per student went up 21.5 percent, local funding went up by 10.1 percent and federal funding decreased by 5.1 percent.
Most of the additional money - about $800 million - went to teachers and staff. Of that, a little over $100 million went to hire additional staff members, $12 million went to recruiting teachers and staff and $9 million went to professional development. Most of the rest went to salary increases.
But some members of the State Board of Education said they had problems with the way the new money had been distributed.
"I am struck by how little was spent on professional development, especially when we look at the needs of districts like Baltimore City," said Board of Education member, Dunbar Brooks.
Jerry Ciesla, the MGT project director, said that devoting so much of the additional funds to teachers is necessary to improve student achievement.
Ciesla said that when you are in an enterprise that is driven by personnel costs it's not surprising that additional funds go to the salary costs, which includes benefits.
The consultants also found that 87 percent of Maryland public school principals said they believe that the Thornton reform law can work in their local school systems. The consulting firm looked at the programs that school administrators thought were effective. But, this information is descriptive at best because it's based on surveys and not statistical data.
One of the classroom strategies that teachers said was effective in increasing math and reading proficiency is known as "pacing guides," said Simmie A. Raiford, an MGT consultant. Teachers use these guides to follow a student's progress over time.
Another classroom strategy that was found to be effective was making sure the local school system's curriculum matched the state curriculum. This is beneficial to students who move from one to school to another during the school year because teachers will be teaching the same material, so the new student will not be behind or ahead, Raiford said.