For the third year in a row, Maryland's public schools have been ranked No. 1 in the nation by a leading education newspaper, which gives the state high marks for its policies, the preparation of its youngest children and overall achievement.
"What makes Maryland stand out is that it is on the one hand a strong achiever and has shown improvement, but it is also a real leader in terms of policy," said Christopher Swanson, vice president of editorial projects in education at Education Week, which produced the rankings. He said some states that have high student achievement have coasted, but Maryland has kept the pressure on schools to improve.
The rankings, which Gov. Martin O'Malley and other state leaders mentioned frequently in campaign speeches, give the state a B+ while the average grade across the nation was a C. New York and Massachusetts both ranked just below Maryland with a B average, while South Dakota, Nebraska and the District of Columbia had grades of D+.
"We have good education policies that have galvanized this state," said state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, adding that being ranked No. 1 three years in a row is "unprecedented."
State officials pulled out the "#1" sign that appeared in the state education offices in downtown Baltimore and may recycle the large, foam No. 1 fingers to wave around Annapolis again.
"On behalf of all the teachers, administrators and the people of our state who have worked so hard to build up the public education system, I am glad for the recognition," O'Malley said in an interview while acknowledging that funding of the state's schools may take a hit this year as the budget is prepared. "That is our challenge, here, isn't it," he said.
Some observers are skeptical of the Education Week ranking, saying it gives states with a wealthy population a large advantage and does not properly reward states that have improved student achievement.
"I am willing to agree that Maryland has a pretty good educational system overall," said Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research and education advocacy group. "Yes, Maryland right now is winning the race, but they started with a huge head start. And Maryland isn't doing particularly well by its poor and minority kids."
Petrilli said states like Florida should get more attention because it has been "addressing school failure."
Maryland falls behind in the gap between the achievement of its poor children and those who aren't poor, ranking 37th in the country in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Grasmick contends that this is because the state's school population is now majority-minority and that compared to other states with similar demographics, Maryland still does well in reducing the achievement gap.
And local education advocates pointed out that while the state has much to tout, a real struggle lies ahead in the legislative session that opens Wednesday.
"I think we have to have a tempered celebration because in the not-too-distant future we have a potentially 5 percent across-the-board cut, which would be potentially devastating and would decimate the high-quality programs that Maryland has," said Jessica Schiller, education director at Advocates for Children and Youth.