"Maryland, No. 1 in education!" We've heard that boast ad nauseam over the last five years, every time Education Week releases its Quality Counts rankings. We hear it especially from the state's political establishment, as it takes every chance it can to claim credit for this top ranking in the nation.

But what does No. 1 really mean?

The actual Education Week report — which this year did not include an overall state ranking — and other data show that all that glitters is not gold when it comes to education in Maryland.

The Quality Counts report has weighed inputs much more heavily than outputs i.e., student achievement. Only one component of the Quality Counts Index (7 percent of the total) actually measures student achievement.

It should be no surprise that the state ranks first in the nation for spending and centralized control — two areas in which Maryland's one-party Democratic machine excels.

Buried in the Quality Counts report, and conveniently left off the giddy press releases, are data showing Maryland's abysmal poverty gap rankings — comparisons of the scores of students eligible for free lunch programs versus their peers on National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. On the 2012 and 2013 reports, Maryland ranked dead last in the nation for the 8th grade math poverty gap. This year, Maryland ranked 37th on that metric, and jumped 15 spots on the 4th grade reading gap to 23rd. Improvements to be sure, but are they worthy of the of No. 1 hype?

On other rankings Maryland does not fare so well. StudentsFirst, an education reform group run by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee, ranked Maryland schools 27th overall in the nation with a grade of D+ and an overall GPA of 1.35. Maryland earned a D on StudentsFirst metrics of Elevating the Teaching Profession, Empowering Parents and Spend Wisely and Govern Well.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress scores also reveal another inconvenient truth: The massive increase in state spending on K-12 education from the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act (the Thornton Plan) is not working. Enacted in 2002, some of the ostensible goals of the mandate were to eliminate educational disparities between white students and minority students and between poor students and their peers. Last fiscal year, the state spent $6 billion on K-12 education, up from $2.9 billion in 2002.

A three-year study of Thornton by an independent consultant found that 53 percent of the increased spending went not to the classroom but toward increased teacher salary and benefits.

A decade and billions of dollars after Thornton, those disparities remain, and in some cases are increasing.

According to the education reform group MarylandCAN the disparities between black/white and low income/non-low income students increased across every grade and subject between 2003 and 2013. Over the last two years, the achievement gap between whites and blacks, whites and Latinos and non-low income and low-income students increased in reading and math among fourth graders. The group also noted achievement gaps in proficiency rates that were higher than the national average in 2013.

MarylandCAN's Executive Director, Jason Botel, says to ease the gaps, Maryland should invest in pre kindergarten, which is a legislative priority of Gov. Martin O'Malley and several Democratic gubernatorial candidates seeking to succeed him. Mr. Botel also called Maryland's charter school law too restrictive, and on school choice, he said the state "should look at what successful schools that are working are doing, and expand that footprint."

Maryland could use a little more in the way of free market solutions these days.

In order to achieve such reforms however, we need to fundamentally transform the way we think about our education system. In his book The End is Near and It's Going to be Awesome, Kevin Williamson argues that the current educational establishment conflates its customers and its product. A properly aligned market-based education system understands that its customers are students and its products are the types of education it provides. Our current system though, is designed to serve the interests of the state i.e., political interests. In this case, the customer is the state, and the product is a workforce crafted to meet the needs of the state. What a backward way of thinking, one that is certainly at odds with the right to a "thorough and efficient" education enshrined in the Maryland Constitution.

It is clear from all the trumpeting of "We're No. 1" that Maryland's political-educational establishment is tone deaf to its own confusion, all the more reason not to leave education reform to the politicians.

Mark Newgent is a frequent contributor to Red Maryland, a conservative radio network and blog whose content appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun and on baltimoresun.com. His email is marknewgent@gmail.com.


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