MSDE must rise to the education challenge in Maryland

Education commentators have been gnashing their teeth since the recent release of the “gold standard” 2017 National Assessment of National Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores. The scores were flat nationwide. What’s more, as one expert wrote, the scores have been “inexcusably stuck in the mud” over the past eight years.

That sounds pretty awful for our nation, and it is. But the news for Marylanders is even worse. Our state had the largest decline in test scores nationwide from 2013 through 2017, according to analyst Michael J. Petrilli, president of the prominent Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Once upon a time, Maryland schools had a different reputation. From 2009 through 2013, our public schools were number one in the rankings of the national newspaper Education Week. Since then, we’ve slipped to sixth.

Moreover, we have been in the middle, not near the top, on the more telling NAEP scores. And even those scores were inflated because, as exposed in 2013, we had failed to test large numbers of students with disabilities. That practice has been corrected, accounting for part of our decline but not all.

Yet, is this anything we didn’t know before? After all the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (known as the Kirwan Commission, on which I serve) is already much in the news. Its preliminary report in December minced no words about the urgency of bold reforms and the need for a lot more money to pay for them.

Still, the new NAEP data showing that we are going in the wrong direction, shines additional light on a lesser-known challenge before the commission. Yes, more money is critical. But there must also be recommendations for strong accountability measures to assure that the money is well spent. The commission recognizes this, but finding a solution is difficult.

There are two big inter-tangled stumbling blocks. One is the weak management capacity of the Maryland Department of Education (MSDE), which must set standards for spending and monitor compliance. The second is the folly of the nation’s enduring love affair with local control of public schooling.

Local control is a complex subject, but here are some basics. The virtues of local control include providing local educators with great flexibility in the employment and training of staff, teaching methods and general administration. On the other hand, how does it make sense for 24 school systems to go their own way instead of using evidence-based best practices in, for example, early childhood programs, interventions for struggling learners, and career and college readiness? The state should prescribe which practices should be used, subject to (a) exemptions for good cause and (b) wide local latitude in how the best practices are implemented.

That balance shouldn’t be hard to accomplish. Other countries with top-performing school systems do it through national policies, whereas in the U.S., there is much more fractionalization and tension among federal, state and local policymakers.

Still, the state/local tension can be overcome in Maryland if locals trust the state to do the job right. Right now, they have good reason for skepticism. MSDE preaches partnership, but the process too often results in a blizzard of regulatory paperwork that is of questionable guidance and assistance.

Why hasn’t MSDE been more up to the challenge? Is it because of lack of management skills and resources to develop and monitor sound regulations in collaboration with local educators? Is it because of lack of political will to risk local wrath — from local elected officials as well as educators — if it takes stronger stands? And have local educators met MSDE half-way? Probably it’s all of the above. One certain step should be to bolster MSDE’s shrinking staff, which has been asked to do more with less in recent years.

The worst possible scenario would be for the state to diminish local accountability just as accountability nationwide — in the wake of the demise of the No Child Left Behind Act — is backtracking. The Kirwan Commission knows it must convince the governor, legislature and public that MSDE will be empowered to hold local districts more accountable for how more money is spent, while being held more accountable itself. MSDE flunked that test following the Thornton Commission recommendations and funding increases more than 15 years ago.

We must get it right this time. There must be fresh resolve and accountability structures to assure that MSDE and local school systems work together to improve implementation of evidence-based and cost-effective best practices. Our schools will continue to slide unless this happens.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, and a former chairman of the Baltimore school board's budget committee. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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