Maryland schools stand at the starting line of a $4 billion overhaul so comprehensive that its designers say it will make the state’s schools not just some of the best in the nation over the next decade, but the world.
Just entering this race is Mohammed Choudhury, a San Antonio educator known for being a charismatic, bold thinker fascinated by the intractable issue of how to use education to help lift children out of poverty. Maryland’s new state superintendent, who starts this week, will be one of the key players in leading the state through the new plan.
“I think Maryland excites and intrigues him. He is a very smart and deep policy thinker. … He is thinking all the time about how to design systems to make them more equitable for kids,” said Mike Magee, president of Chiefs for Change, a national network of education leaders.
After five years of more detached leadership from a superintendent who was criticized for her failure to communicate with local school leaders, legislators and others, the state’s education community is likely to see a vastly different style in their new superintendent.
When Choudhury wants to tour a school he doesn’t just stop by a few classrooms and talk briefly to teachers and students under the watchful eye of the principal. He goes all-in by shadowing one student for half a day and then reporting his findings to the principal.
It’s not the typical approach of a school administrator, but Choudhury plans to continue the practice when he visits schools here. He comes with what some see as unusual intensity.
“I would say Mohammed is very passionate, and he is probably one of the hardest-working individuals I have ever met,” said Pedro Martinez, the superintendent of schools in San Antonio, who is Choudhury’s mentor and previous boss. During his career in Texas schools Choudhury was known for school integration efforts in San Antonio and for creating, with Martinez, a more precise system of defining high-poverty schools and targeting money to them that has since been adopted by the state legislature.
Choudhury, 37, faces an unprecedented number of challenges in Maryland.
The ambitious overhaul, known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, will begin on his watch. And Choudhury will have to navigate a power-sharing arrangement between the state school board that hired him and a new Blueprint oversight board created by the legislature.
He will be helping local school leaders figure out the best approaches to bring students back from a once-in-a-century disruption in learning, including spending $3 billion in new federal pandemic recovery money — all of which must be spent relatively quickly.
“I plan to engage the heck out of people,” Choudhury said, not just by talking to those in powerful positions such as union leaders and local superintendents but also gathering groups of students or classroom teachers together to hear their concerns. “I am not going to limit myself to the opinions of one small group of adults.”
In some ways, the Maryland State School Board chose an untested and unconventional candidate. Choudhury, a child of Bangladeshi immigrants who will earn $310,000 a year, comes with no knowledge of Maryland, having spent all his time in California and Texas schools. Until last week, he was the associate superintendent and chief strategy, talent and innovation officer for the San Antonio Independent School District, and he has never led a school system.
Most recent state superintendents have either been Marylanders or had experience on the state level.
Choudhury also hasn’t held a job that required him to do a lot of interacting with politicians, and reporting to the legislature and the governor will be part of his job.
But his admirers say he is accomplished.
“In my circles at least, Mohammed is uber-smart and uber determined to find a solution,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based, nonpartisan research center. “He is seen as the guy who sets his sights really high for what the right thing to do for kids is and then goes into the details.
“He is a really interesting mix … of having really, big bold ideas, but also being a designer and geek.” He’s not afraid to throw out standard practice that isn’t working to find a more creative solution, according to Lake.
But the president of the teachers union in San Antonio portrays Choudhury as a polarizing figure who sometimes kept decisions from the public. Choudhury does not agree with the union’s characterization that he didn’t involve others in decision-making processes.
“What we have seen from Mr. Choudhury is really a lack of meaningful democratic decision-making in our communities,” said Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel.
Choudhury also angered the teachers by turning control of underperforming schools to charter operators as part of a plan to create schools that would attract students of varying socio-economic status. But the teachers saw the move as giving control to private entities and “undermining the democracy of our education.”
“Our schools have been dominated by standardized testing and a narrow and deficit-centered view of academic achievement,” Lopez said.
Choudhury, who was being courted by other school leaders, according to Maryland state board chair Clarence Crawford, said he chose to come to Maryland specifically because the state passed legislation intended to transform schools.
“We have not figured out … how to bring the absolute best education to our children, especially historically disadvantaged students who are the future face of our country,” Choudhury said.
While civil rights organizations and researchers delve into what provides an adequate education, rarely does a state commission dedicate 18 months to design a plan and then a legislature commit money to it.
“I was inspired by that … and I told myself that is where I need to be next,” Choudhury said.
Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises and Howard County school Superintendent Michael J. Martirano say the blueprint will define the work of schools for the next decade.
“How are we going to attack its full implementation?” Martirano asked.
Martirano and others are concerned the state school board, which hired Choudhury and oversees education policy, could overlap with a new board that will oversee Blueprint spending and report to the legislature.
“It creates some real concern about leadership authority,” Martirano said, adding that local superintendents have some concerns about who is going to communicate mandates and expectations.
Santelises sees the challenge as central to helping provide every child equal access to a good education.
“Look, this is a crossroads time in Maryland, coming out of virtual schooling. We need someone who can capitalize on that,” she said.
Santelises said too often, the state’s leaders have talked about equity but have not “rolled up their sleeves” and acted.
“I think the time is right for leadership that understands the strategic moves of whole school and whole state improvement. That is where the focus should be. There has been too much messing around the edges,” Santelises said, saying Choudhury should work on a limited number of areas that will lead to improvement. Often Maryland embraces the next “thing of the month,” she said, rather than keeping focused on meaningful change.
The legislature has committed the money, and now, she said, is the time for “commensurate leadership” on the part of school leaders.
Choudhury is also known for integrating economically segregated schools. In San Antonio he created schools with new programs — Montessori or dual language, for instance — and then put them in the most impoverished areas of the city. The programs attracted middle-class families so that children of different economic backgrounds sat side by side in classrooms, a model for integrating schools.
While it has not been popular among the teacher unions, the San Antonio experience is viewed nationally as a success.
“So where a typical educator would say integration can’t be done, Mohammed accomplished it. He did it in a smart way. No one is in favor of forced busing,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington.
“He did this all voluntarily through choice by creating attractive programs that people with means would recognize as good for their own kids as well as good for society.”
Martirano, who redrew boundary lines two years ago in Howard County, in part to ensure schools didn’t become segregated by wealth and poverty, said he welcomes direction from the state. Schools throughout Maryland have become more segregated in the past decade, and efforts to address the issue have been criticized by parents of children who must change schools.
“I am pleased to hear that the new superintendent has an interest in that,” Martirano said.
Some of the issues confronting the state are far more traditional problems, including attracting teachers. Martirano said many educators have left the profession after the stress of the pandemic, and Baltimore Teachers Union President Diamonte Brown said she would like to see him look at teacher certification issues as well as the way funds are allocated to schools.
Choudhury, who arrived in Maryland this week, said his wife would join him in the coming months. While they have no children, he said, “I look forward to having children with a birth certificate in Maryland. How wonderful will it be to spend a decade doing this work and potentially have children go through the Blueprint era.”