A decade of juggling education and politics

Grasmick's tenure marked by reforms

September 02, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Nancy S. Grasmick marks her 10th anniversary tomorrow as superintendent of Maryland's public schools, an unusually long tenure in which she has been as much a politician as an educator.

Over the past decade, Grasmick has pushed a vision for Maryland school reform that has earned widespread national acclaim, while negotiating the many land mines that inevitably accompany such changes. She's also become an adroit player of public opinion, leaping to the forefront on the hot-button issues of improving reading instruction and closing the minority achievement gap.

"Nancy is either a magician or a politician or just outstanding," says J. Edward Andrews Jr., retired superintendent of Montgomery County and deputy superintendent of Baltimore City schools and former state school board president. "She's had to be a combination of all three to last so long and do so much."

Adds William J. Moloney, Colorado's commissioner of education and former superintendent of Calvert County: "It's been a remarkable tenure. [Nationally] Dr. Grasmick is one of the top two names that come up most consistently for what she's doing for education in her state."

In the process, the 62-year-old Grasmick has made her impact in every classroom in Maryland.

All Maryland pupils in grades three, five and eight spend a week each spring taking exams that are the centerpiece of Grasmick's accountability program.

All parents receive annual reports on how well - or poorly - their children's schools are performing compared with others across the state.

What teachers teach and how they teach it are directed more than ever by the state.

And each winter, principals and superintendents hold their breath to see who gets added to Maryland's list of low-performing schools - or, worse yet, who gets taken over for persistent failure.

"The fact is, she has gotten teachers into a different frame of mind and brought instruction out to the front," says James J. Lupis, executive director of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland and former superintendent of Kent County. "She has said that the bottom line is, `Are the kids learning?'"

Along the way, Grasmick has battled persistent criticism about the state's exams.

Many parents and some education experts charge that Maryland is pushing problem-solving and thinking at the expense of basic skills, prompting schools to ignore instruction in facts and spend more time on the process of taking the tests.

"Maryland has the most exclusive form of performance-based testing of any state in the country," says Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and top education adviser to President Bush.

Evers, who headed a review of Maryland's testing program, believes that children's knowledge of basic history and other educational nuts-and-bolts are never checked. "What it means is there are large portions of the curriculum that do not get tested at all," he says.

Grasmick dismisses the criticism, saying the state's testing program promotes "good teaching."

"Just go out to schools and talk to teachers and principals about how much better instruction has become."

One of their own

When Grasmick was picked to be state schools superintendent Sept. 3, 1991, expectations were high.

She'd never been a local superintendent, but Maryland educators were generally pleased that the state board had picked one of their own.

Grasmick began her career teaching deaf children in Baltimore - choosing that particular field after suffering a temporary hearing loss in her youth. She then spent 30 years in Baltimore County's school system, rising to the level of associate superintendent.

Just before becoming state superintendent, Grasmick served as secretary of Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services and special secretary for the Office of Children, Youth and Families.

It didn't hurt her political career that her husband, Louis J. Grasmick, is a longtime political contributor to then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Pushing for improvement

At the time, Maryland was embarking on an aggressive plan for school reform.

The state's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders had just taken the pilot version of a new set of exams known as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, but MSPAP - pronounced "Miz-pap" - was not yet on the lips of every public school teacher and parent.

"Nancy took the recommendations for reform and made them her own," says Walter Sondheim Jr., the state school board member and civic leader who headed Maryland's 1989 education reform commission.

As state superintendent, Grasmick quickly earned a reputation for long hours, often leaving her north Baltimore County home before the morning newspaper delivery and returning home late in the evening.

She regularly visits schools across the state, making the long drives alone and using the time to catch up on a blizzard of phone messages on her cell phone.

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