Raising the bar

Our view: Maryland can’t race to the top without raising instructional standards

April 23, 2010

Maryland is set to adopt new national education standards for what children should learn from kindergarten to 12th grade, a move that should boost the state's chances in the second round of the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top competition in June. Coming just after the first-round winners were announced last month — Delaware and Tennessee were the only states to make the initial cut — Maryland's efforts to show it is serious about reform come not a moment too soon.

That's because the Obama administration has already indicated a policy shift away from awarding federal school aid on the basis of student poverty levels and toward making grants that support school districts that demonstrate a serious commitment to the kinds of changes that boost student achievement and hold teachers accountable for results.

Maryland, which skipped the first round of Race to the Top, has taken significant steps toward tying teacher pay to student performance and rewarding teachers who volunteer to work in underperforming schools or in hard-to-staff subjects. But Gov. Martin O'Malley and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick still haven't done enough to get local school districts and teachers unions fully behind the effort, and time may be running out. Tennessee and Delaware won the first round of awards largely because both had near-unanimous buy-in from their states' major education stakeholders.

That's why Maryland's participation in the National Governors Association's effort to establish uniform national standards for state education departments is the kind of sweeping reform the state needs to join. Higher standards must be made a reality in the state's schools, not just an aspiration.

The new standards raise the bar for teachers and students by putting more emphasis on writing, math and critical-thinking skills, all of which students will need in order to be competitive in a 21st Century global economy. Higher standards also dovetail nicely with the Obama administration's goal of preparing every high school graduate for college or work.

One of the big complaints about standardized testing under the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law was that it encouraged states to set minimum standards for competence in math and reading in order to allow as many children as possible to pass. As a result, the curriculum was "dumbed down" so that teachers could concentrate on teaching to the test.

The higher standards that will replace those currently tested on the Maryland State Assessments and High School Assessments are designed to both challenge students and help them achieve more by presenting subjects in a more effective sequence and at greater depth. Under the new guidelines, all students, for example, will take algebra in eighth grade, and there will be more emphasis on writing in language arts programs.

Raising the bar could also reduce the achievement gap between the state's richest and poorest school districts by bringing greater clarity about what students should know — and how they should be taught. Baltimore City, for example, has already set aside money to begin overhauling its curriculum to reflect the higher standards. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick plans to submit the new standards to the state board of education this month or next. Let's hope the board approves them as quickly as possible so that Maryland can be near the front of the line when the next round of federal Race to the Top funds are handed out later this year.

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