Most of the attention after the release of results from this year's state exams for elementary and middle school students has focused on Baltimore City, where scores appear to have leveled off after years of rapid gains. But Baltimore isn't the only school system where progress has slowed. It's a statewide problem, which is why Maryland's new superintendent of schools, Lillian Lowery, has made figuring out how to get the ball rolling again one of her highest priorities.
Ms. Lowery, who previously served as state school superintendent in Delaware before taking over Maryland's top education job July 1, recently visited The Sun to talk about the kinds of improvements she believes are needed to keep up the momentum for Maryland students. She gave the impression of a thoughtful, experienced leader who understood the complexity of the issues involved and the need to build a broad consensus on how to move the system forward. But she is also clearly someone who wasn't afraid of a fight if that's what the job requires.
On the leveling off in this year's Maryland School Assessment exams, Ms. Lowery conceded that no matter how impressive the initial gains of a reform program are, it's hard to maintain the momentum after years of rapid improvements. Part of the problem, she says, lies in the fact that the last 5 percentage points of improvement are always more difficult to achieve than the first.
That's because the early fixes are generally the easiest ones to make, she explained. The changes that come after that address thornier issues, such as the class- and race-based achievement gaps or the problems faced by English-as-a-second-language learners and special education students, so they take longer to show results.
Viewed from that perspective, Ms. Lowery says she is not surprised that, for the moment at least, scores seem to have reached a plateau. But she's adamant that allowing them to stagnate there is unacceptable. She is a great admirer of her predecessor in the job, former state school superintendentNancy S. Grasmick, who was famous for sticking with a problem until it was solved. Ms. Lowery brings a similar determination to carrying out her own agenda.
She believes, for example, that the state needs to make better use of technology in every aspect of reform. An example would be the computerized longitudinal data system the state promised to set up as one of the conditions for receiving a $250 Race to the Top Award in 2010. In Delaware, where Ms. Lowery was the state superintendent before coming here, she could see the entire school record of any student in the state from her desk with a few clicks of a mouse. She wants to see a similar integration of records here and sees no reason why the state's 24 school districts shouldn't all have fully compatible systems for storing data.
Another goal is encouraging different school districts to share information about best practices. If, for example, District A develops a great eighth-grade reading method, District B ought to know about it as soon as possible so its students can benefit too. And it's not only important just to share what works; knowing what doesn't work is just as important, so schools don't waste time reinventing square wheels. If a program or instructional tool isn't effective, every district in the state shouldn't have to try it out and compound the failure.
Ms. Lowery thinks educational policy should be data driven, but she also insists educators use common sense as well. The 2011 case in which two Talbot County lacrosse players were suspended from school for carrying a small knife and a lighter used to repair equipment in their tote bags before a away game was a perfect example of what happens when a mindless adherence to rules trumps sensible policy. The school officials who ordered the suspensions clearly weren't thinking about what was in the boys' best interest from an educational standpoint, and as a result all they managed to communicate was a lesson in folly — their own.
Ms. Lowery can expect a major challenge in dealing with the teachers unions' objections to the state's new evaluation system — which for the first time will in part be based on gains in student achievement as a measure of teacher effectiveness. But ultimately a resolution to that and other problems will depend on a similar willingness to build consensus, to accept the necessity for compromise and to be guided by common sense and shared purpose.
Ms. Lowery has built her career on an ability to bring people together in order to get things done. She has no illusions about the difficulty of the process out of which sound policies arise, but she's not willing to settle for less than the best that people bring to the table. In this she is indeed much like her predecessor, Ms. Grasmick, and that suggests she is well-equipped to take on the task of moving Maryland's schools to the next level.