Joseph Shilling retains his capacity to surprise.
A long-time education insider, Dr. Shilling became state school superintendent and unexpectedly led the charge for sweeping reform. He was extremely successful under difficult circumstances.
Now, with a year remaining on his term as state school chief, he is unexpectedly resigning to become superintendent in Queen Anne's County -- overseeing a 5,300-student system at a pay cut of almost $9,000.
When the State Board of Education chose him to replace David W. Hornbeck, the man Dr. Shilling had served as a low-key deputy, the board passed over candidates suggested by Gov. William DOnald Schaefer. The governor was so furious he at first refused to invite Dr. Shilling to cabinet meetings.
Yet when a gubernatorial task force recommended an education reform plan based on new standards and new tests, it was Dr. Shilling who tackled the difficult task of putting the plan into action. He did so with such dispatch that he won over the governor, and his work gave the state a running start on reform. The new tests were given for the first time last week.
While education reform talk comes in waves at the state and federal level, much of the real action takes place locally. In this sense, Dr. Shilling's decision is not as surprising as it might seem at first. He had worked to transform the State Department of Education from a regulatory agency to one that will assist the local school systems in doing their jobs. Now he wants to be on the receiving end of that assistance. "I wanted to go back into a local school system and do it now," he said. "It's the next step. You can roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty."
Back home -- he lives on Kent Island -- and in a school system small enough for the superintendent to keep personal track of what's going on, he has an excellent chance to put his plans into practice. In the process, Queen Anne's County could provide an example to other state school systems of how to bring about major education reforms. The county is lucky to have him.
The Schaefer administration, however, is left with the hard task of finding a replacement who can jump into the middle of its education-reform process without missing a step.