A chance for school reforms

November 26, 2006|By Andy Smarick

Over the next two months, as Governor-elect Martin O'Malley develops his administration's education agenda, the independent streak and bent for innovation that he cultivated as mayor and placed at the center of his campaign will be fully tested.

The education challenges facing the new administration are daunting. Across the state, low-income and minority children continue to lag far behind their peers. Dozens of chronically underperforming schools, mostly in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, face severe federal and state sanctions. And as mandatory student achievement targets ratchet up, more and more schools, including those in the suburbs, are likely to fall short and move onto the state's watch list.

Times have changed, and it's no longer enough for state leaders to create an education task force, launch a few feel-good programs and then call it a day. Tough accountability provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act require states to improve the achievement of all students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Results, not good intentions, are now the measuring stick.

In years past, the political response would be to increase education funding. But that's not a viable solution to Maryland's current problems.

First, it's already been done. The "Thornton Plan" is in the process of injecting an additional $2 billion into our schools. Far more money than ever before is flowing through Maryland public education.

Even if state leaders mistakenly believe that more education funding is needed, they'd be hard-pressed to find the money. The state faces annual structural deficits of more than $1 billion far into the future. Another Thornton-like plan would lead to massive deficits (the undoing of the last Democratic administration) or require enormous tax increases (political suicide for a new governor).

So, when he enters office in January, Mr. O'Malley will face a confluence of problems: serious education challenges, federal and state rules requiring that real progress be made, and a political and policy environment that makes "just spend more money" a nonstarter.

As the incoming administration develops its education agenda, it should consider four high-impact, low-cost reforms. Doing so will improve the educational opportunities of Maryland students and fulfill his promise of independence and innovation.

First, launch a performance-pay program for teachers. Maryland has an antiquated system for compensating educators, basing pay on years of experience and number of academic degrees. This prohibits principals from rewarding excellent teachers and inhibits school systems from recruiting teachers into challenging schools and high-need subject areas. A pay-for-performance program has the potential to attract a new generation of talented, ambitious graduates into the profession, help retain the most talented current educators, and distribute great teachers among schools and subjects.

Second, expand charter schooling. Chartering enables parents, teachers and community leaders to create new, highly accountable public schools, and it provides educational choice to low-income families. Baltimore's experience with chartering so far has been a great success: Several of the highest-performing schools in the city, like KIPP Ujima Village, the Crossroads School, and Midtown Academy, are charter schools.

Third, improve school assessments. Our state tests evaluate schools based on their students' current performance level. Any teacher will tell you that's unfair because it makes no allowances for how students were performing when they entered the school or how they're progressing. Hospitals are judged not by how many of their patients are sick but by whether they made the patients better. The same logic applies to schools. We need new state assessments that measure each student's academic growth.

Finally, empower local elected executives to take over chronically failing schools. If a local school board proves itself unable to fix a long-struggling school, those students deserve a major change. Bold action can be accomplished while protecting local prerogatives by placing the schools under the authority of the county executive, or in the case of Baltimore, the mayor. That accountable, elected executive can then decide how best to proceed, whether by hiring a third party to operate the school, converting it into a charter school, hiring new staff, or some other intervention.

These four reforms will re-energize Maryland's public schools and help improve the achievement of our most disadvantaged students. They are cost-effective and based on innovation, entrepreneurialism, results, and accountability - principles Mr. O'Malley intends to distinguish his administration. Granted, these reforms may not be favorites of the state's vested education interest groups, who would prefer more money and less boat-rocking. But students and voters alike will thank him if he lets his independent streak shine and seizes this unique opportunity to improve Maryland's public schools.

Andy Smarick, chief of staff at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, was a member of the Governor's Commission on Quality Education. His e-mail is andy@publiccharters.org.

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