A lot of people thought Nancy S. Grasmick would never retire. A couple of governors wished she would. But when Dr. Grasmick finally stepped down from her job as Maryland schools chief in 2011, she was not only the longest-serving state superintendent in the nation but also among the most consequential. She was hired to make the tough decisions necessary to move Maryland schools into a new era of accountability, and over more than two decades she did that and more. Dr. Grasmick may not be solely responsible for Maryland public schools’ perennial ranking as among the best in the nation, but it’s impossible to imagine them achieving that distinction without her.
A Baltimore native and Western High School graduate, Dr. Grasmick became interested in teaching as a teenager when a bad reaction to medication left her temporarily deaf. The story of Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, fascinated her, and after graduating from what was then Towson State Teachers College, she started her career teaching deaf children in Baltimore and later earned a master’s degree in deaf education from Gallaudet University. She would go on to spend a quarter-century as a teacher and administrator in Baltimore County schools before taking a job in Gov. William Donald Schaefer’s administration. Some legislators criticized the appointment at the time because Dr. Grasmick’s husband, Louis, was a major Schaefer ally. But they soon learned that there was much more to Nancy Grasmick than meets the eye.
Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry, who was state school board president when Dr. Grasmick was hired as superintendent, said she was able to implement accountability systems that put Maryland far ahead of other states because of her experience, her acumen and her political skills. “She knew how to deal with the legislature and the governor and the statewide school organizations — the superintendents association and the teachers association,” Mr. Embry said. “She was very accessible, rational and persuasive and a very hard worker.”
Former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who worked extensively with Dr. Grasmick to develop the 1997 city-state shared governance agreement for Baltimore schools, among other initiatives, called her the “iron hand in the velvet glove.” Her appearance — diminutive and always impeccably dressed — comes with a superb intellect and a fierce determination. “She really sees the future and tries to get there,” Ms. Hoffman said.
Two governors — Parris N. Glendening and Martin O’Malley — learned the hard way that she was not someone to be pushed around. Both tried to oust her, only to be thwarted by the reservoir of goodwill she had built up among legislators, school board members and teachers. The reason is that throughout her entire tenure, even during times when her initiatives were controversial, like the adoption of mandatory High School Assessments, she never lost sight of why she was there. She came up as an educator of the most vulnerable kids — the disabled and special education students — and she always saw the connection between the policies she was pursuing and their effects on Maryland’s children, said former Baltimore school board member and longtime education observer Kalman R. Hettleman.
“She put the kids first and the system second,” he said. “You would think that would be essential, but the education establishment doesn’t always remember that.”