In light of declining test scores, Lowery looks to tackle reforms

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Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery

Maryland schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery, a self-described optimist, had hoped students would excel on this year's state assessments because they were being taught under a more rigorous curriculum.

Instead, test scores plunged. Lowery now says the new curriculum actually led to the decline, as tests weren't updated to match what students were learning.


The poor showing on the Maryland School Assessment spurred calls this week for a moratorium on testing, and led to questions about student preparedness and whether the new curriculum was being made a scapegoat.

And that's just one of the challenges facing Lowery, who recently completed her first year on the job.


The transition to the new "common core" curriculum is a precursor to other reforms on the horizon in state education, such as a new teacher evaluation system and new student tests. Meanwhile, a number of school districts have new or interim superintendents at the helm.

For any first-year state superintendent, the changes would be taxing. But Lowery, 58, has the added pressure of being the first to follow longtime Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who during her 20-year tenure guided the state to the top in national rankings.

"She's not responsible for the decisions that were made, but she is responsible now for the work," said departing Anne Arundel County Superintendent Kevin Maxwell, who is taking over the Prince George's County school system. "That's not an enviable position to be in when what you inherited is this massive change process that's underway."

Maxwell added that he's "confident" in Lowery and said that she has "made the transition wonderfully."

Lowery's education experience ranges from the classroom to administration. A native of Gastonia, N.C., she previously served as Delaware's secretary of education. She also had been superintendent of a school district in Delaware and an assistant superintendent in Virginia. She taught middle and high school in Virginia.

After addressing the state board on the test results released this week, Lowery said she embraces what lies before her.

"We live and we learn," said Lowery, who described herself as a "glass half-full" person.

"I was hopeful that we would be able to cross that bridge between common core state standards and the current Maryland standards to which the assessment is aligned," she said. "But I believe that most of us weren't in a position to see how it would actually play out."


The drop in math and reading test scores for both elementary and middle schools was seen in nearly every school district, from Baltimore City to highly rated suburban districts, such as Howard and Montgomery counties.

In addition to the new curriculum, Lowery will oversee preparation for the new tests that are slated to begin in 2014-2015 and are tied to the common core.

And a new teacher evaluation system that ties their effectiveness to student performance will be implemented after being piloted in schools last year.

Some say the state is moving too quickly.

The state teachers union and school superintendents association this week called for the suspension of testing in the state until the new tests are ready. The state is expected to seek a federal waiver to postpone using test scores to evaluate teachers.

Lowery said that professional development will be a top priority in ensuring a smooth transition to the new curriculum, which must be completely implemented in classrooms this fall.


"I need to know that people feel comfortable with the kind of professional development and technical assistance they're getting," Lowery said. "I want to be in classrooms with teachers and students and looking at implementation and hearing directly from teachers whether they feel they're getting the support they need."

In her first year, Lowery has canvassed the state seeking input from communities. By June, she had visited every county in Maryland at least twice. She also meets with the district's superintendents as well as union leadership once a month and has stressed the importance of local flexibility among districts.

She said the state has in place educators "in both private and public leadership to make sure that Maryland is No. 1, and when we say we're No. 1, it includes every child performing at high levels."

Lowery said another priority is ensuring the state has adequate resources.

During this week's state board meeting, board member Madhu Sidhu said she's heard from teachers, students and parents that not enough textbooks are available as the state transitions to the new curriculum.

Lowery said that might not be the proper focus of concern because the state needs to move away from only using textbooks and rely more on electronic sources.


"We've got to talk about resources and what kind of investment in resources make the most sense and will give us the most longevity," she said.

Lowery also is working with superintendents to assure parents that the transition to new curriculum will be handled well.

"It has been my experience … that when principals tell teachers and students and school communities that things are OK and under control, they tend to believe that," Lowery said.

But turnover among superintendents is high.

In the Baltimore area alone, no superintendent has been at the helm for longer than three years. Three districts — Baltimore City, Anne Arundel County and Harford County — have interim superintendents.

Statewide, St. Mary's County Superintendent Michael Martirano is the longest-serving superintendent, with nine years.


"She's tried to provide for us a very firm rudder in terms of these choppy seas we're experiencing," Martirano said of Lowery.

As president of the Public Schools Superintendents Association of Maryland, he has stressed to Lowery the need to adequately implement the common core, teacher evaluations and the technology needed for the new assessments, which are to be administered online.

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"Those are three major pieces that we've just got to get right," said Martirano. He said there is a need to have "a level of measured urgency to make sure we're moving at a rapid rate.

"The consistent theme with superintendents across the state is that we're very supportive of the reform efforts but we want to get it right," he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing most of the state's teachers.

"The timeline we're under now is very short," Weller said, "and I would rather see that timeline extended so that we have an opportunity to get it right than to try and do something just to meet a timeline."


Weller lauded Lowery for traveling the state and meeting consistently with union officials during her first year and added, "That was not the case prior."

"We've talked about a lot of issues that are facing Maryland and the reforms," Weller said. "What is going to be critical now is seeing whether the talk translates into action."