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Ms. Lowery's to-do list

By all accounts Lillian Lowery, the Delaware educator who was named Maryland's state superintendent of schools Friday, comes to the job with an impressive resume and a reputation as a consensus builder who can work with teachers, principals and local school districts to get things done. She'll need all those skills and more to implement the kinds of reforms Maryland needs, and she'll have to hit the ground running if she is to make progress on the array of thorny issues that require her immediate attention.

Ms. Lowery, who presently holds the top education job in Delaware, led that state's successful effort to win one of the country's first Race To the Top grants based on the reforms she introduced. That experience should be invaluable, since she will be called on to make many of the same kinds of adjustments to curriculum, testing and teacher evaluations here that she helped put in place in our neighboring state. Over the next two years, Maryland will adopt more rigorous national standards for all grades in English and math, revamp its standardized achievement tests and institute a new system for evaluating teachers based in part on growth in their students' performance.

Those are all formidable challenges, and Ms. Lowery will have to tackle them without the benefit of her predecessor's long experience in Maryland.Nancy S. Grasmickhad an incomparable network of contacts among powerful lawmakers and public officials that enabled her to navigate the tough politics of education reform. On the other hand, Ms. Lowery comes in with the blessing of Gov.Martin O'Malley— who didn't always see eye-to-eye with Ms. Grasmick — and so could actually end up with as much or even more political clout to back up her policies.

The new evaluation system is shaping up to be the most problematic issue Ms. Lowery will confront because, despite the common-sense notion that teachers ought to be accountable students' progress, there's very little agreement so far on how to do so in a way that's fair. Many teachers are uncomfortable with the concept because they fear being held accountable to a test that doesn't actually measure how well kids are learning. Others wonder how the system will work for teachers in subjects that have not been tested — chemistry, art or music for example. Still others question whether it will penalize teachers in high-performing school districts, where student achievement levels are already high, while rewarding teachers in low-performing districts for marginal improvements in student performance.

Ms. Lowery must sort through these and other conundrums to come up with proposals that can win broad acceptance among parents, teachers, principals and local school district superintendents, all of whom have a stake in the outcome. She can take comfort from the fact that the problems aren't unique to Maryland; educators across the country are wrestling with them. But at the end of the day, only results will matter. Designing an acceptable system may be the steepest hurdle Maryland faces in structuring its reform effort, but failing to surmount it is not an option.

In addition to the immediate concerns regarding curriculum, testing and evaluations, Ms. Lowery at some point will also have to address the state's dysfunctional charter school regulations, which allow local school districts to summarily reject applications for opening new charter schools regardless of the quality of their programs or the desire of communities for alternatives to failing schools. The state board of education should have the authority to independently authorize charters when local school boards reject them for no other reason than that they don't want the competition. Moreover, Maryland's charter school law is virtually unique in requiring that teachers be hired by local school systems rather allowing such schools to hire their own staff. Ms. Lowery is going to have to lead the charge in the legislature for these reforms as well.

We don't expect any of this to be easy or quick. Despite Maryland's No. 1 ranking for the quality of its schools, the state still has a long way to go toward improving the educational opportunities for all its children. Ms. Lowery's record of accomplishment in Delaware and her stated emphasis on early education and K-12 instruction as the basis for effective reform gives reason for hope that she understands that as well and is up to the task of moving Maryland's reform effort to the next level.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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