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Maryland District, Ed. Publisher Forge Unusual Alliance

The largest school district in Maryland and a major educational publisher are teaming up to revamp the school system's elementary curriculum with a model they are jointly developing that will then be marketed by the company across the country.

In fact, the Montgomery County school district is going to profit from the initiative, both with payments from Pearson as it helps to develop the curriculum, and then through receiving a small percentage of sales revenue. (As it was explained to me by a district official, Pearson will pay the district $4.5 million over three years, but half of that the company will recoup through a portion of the first royalties the Montgomery school system earns through the effort.)

A Washington Post story from today details the new initiative, as does a press release jointly issued by Pearson and Montgomery County schools.

The new plan was approved by the county school board yesterday by a vote of 6-2, the Post story says. As part of the deal, Pearson, the world's largest educational publisher, will have the right to use the name of the well-regarded Montgomery County system and its top employees in its effort to market the curriculum elsewhere, the Post says. Montgomery officials will open their classrooms to prospective customers and speak on behalf of the program at Pearson's request, the story explains.

"I tend to look at it from the standpoint that we are broke," Montgomery schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast told the Post. "You have to have new ways of doing things when you don't have money."

The press release about the plan emphasizes that the new elementary curriculum will fully integrate "the core subjects of reading and math with science, social studies, art, music, and physical education by building a student's critical and creative thinking and academic success skills across disciplines."

The release also notes that the new curriculum will be fully aligned with the common standards just finalized. (Maryland already gave conditional approval to those standards before the document was issued in early June.)

"What Montgomery County Public Schools has accomplished for its students over the last 10 years is inspirational for the rest of the nation," Marjorie Scardino, the chief executive at Pearson, said in the press release. "We are honored to join with this outstanding school system to co-develop North Star, which will transform elementary instruction."

I spoke this afternoon with the district's chief of staff, Brian Edwards, about the plans.

"It's very much a joint relationship and partnership" between the district and Pearson, Edwards told me in our conversation. "We will have joint teams to put the materials together."

He notes that it builds on a kindergarten curriculum the district just recently developed and implemented, and that a new 1st grade curriculum will be rolled out this coming fall in the district.

"It's going to be a completely integrated, online digital curriculum," Edwards said. "Everything will be online."

However, the Post story notes that the new arrangement has its critics.

"It puts our system ... in an untenable conflict, when we start to go into business and at the same time try to meet the needs of our students," the Post quotes board of education member Laura Berthiaume as saying. "Converting our school employees into salesmen is not where I think we should be."

The plan also is sharply criticized by Valerie Strauss, author of the Washington Post education blog, The Answer Sheet.

But Edwards defended the plan against such criticism.

"Your publication and every publication has been talking about the terrific difficulty with budgets" amid the economic downturn, he said. "In this day and age, we have to think differently. ... We cannot allow excuses of bad budget situations to cost our students the only opportunity they have for a high-quality educational environment."

Because of the financial arrangement, he said the district will be able to hire more staff to accelerate the process of developing the new curriculum.

"We can get it in classrooms faster at no cost to the district," he said.

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