Pain-free progress

10 things Maryland can do, right now, to improve education — without spending a dime

February 28, 2010|By Matthew H. Joseph

This week, Maryland legislators will consider some relatively modest education reform proposals from Gov. Martin O'Malley. These changes would improve Maryland's competitive position for a $250 million federal grant. But to win the Race to the Top grant - and more importantly, to create a truly just an equitable education system - Maryland must do a lot more.

The recent Education Week report card on Maryland showed that the state has failed to do the reforms most suggested by research and supported by the Obama administration to close large, persistent student achievement gaps.

Maryland has disempowered principals, made it almost impossible to remove incompetent teachers, provided the largest salary increases to staff who work with the most advantaged students, not provided extra services to low-performing students, lowered academic standards and stifled competition and choice.

The results are bad and obvious. As Education Week found, Maryland ranks 50th in the country on the gap between low-income and wealthier students in eighth grade math performance, and this gap has widened.

Maryland must do more than say it will make reforms favored in the Race to the Top application. Every state will say that. Instead, Maryland needs to take actions in advance of the funding decision - actions that go far beyond the minimum.

Advocates for Children and Youth has identified 10 actions that the Maryland State Board of Education and state superintendent of schools can take now - without new money or new laws - that will show our commitment to closing achievement gaps:

•Require school districts to use extra state funds to expand interventions for disadvantaged students. School systems are receiving an unanticipated increase of more than $100 million because they have more low-income children. The Maryland State Department of Education has given districts total discretion on how to use compensatory education funding.

•Remove barriers to extended learning opportunities. No schools in Maryland have extended school days. One school was recently forced to cut back its extended hours because of union restrictions.

•Require districts to provide incentives for principals who work at challenging schools. Maryland schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged and low-performing students suffer from rampant turnover of leadership.

•Require that principals in challenging schools have sufficient authority and support. Principals in Maryland are squeezed between large, local bureaucracies and restrictive teachers union agreements. Even when principals have additional authority, they often lack the information needed to exercise it most effectively.

•Deny licensure to ineffective teachers. Even tenured teachers cannot work in a Maryland public school if they lack a valid certificate issued by the state superintendent. To remain licensed after their initial certificate expires, a teacher must have three years of "satisfactory school-related experience," which means an "annual overall evaluation rating is satisfactory or better." The state can say that "satisfactory" must consider student achievement as a predominant factor.

•Require school districts to take full advantage of an optional third year needed for teacher tenure.

•Require districts to provide incentives for teachers to work in challenging classrooms. Maryland has the largest teacher quality gap between high- and low-poverty schools.

•Require districts to provide sufficient professional development to teachers. Under state licensure regulations, teachers are required to have a "professional development plan." The state can ensure that these plans adequately address needs identified during performance evaluations.

•Implement more rigorous standards for identifying students and schools in need. When new assessments are developed, the state can shift its focus to students who are not achieving at the "advanced" level on existing state tests, since the "proficient" level is so low.

•Remove barriers to qualified teachers coming from alternative career paths.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick has wisely said the state cannot rest on its laurels. Those who favor reform need to be part of the decision-making process so that the Race to the Top application is filled with their ideas. This includes local superintendents who are leading effective reforms, those who support charter schools and differential pay, and representatives of student populations that are underperforming.

The alternative is not only to lose $250 million but also to perpetuate an unjust system of education in Maryland.

Matthew H. Joseph is executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, a Maryland-based independent nonprofit. His e-mail is

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