Gov. Martin O'Malley laid out an ambitious education agenda for the state school board yesterday, saying that he wants to take Maryland's schools from being ranked No. 1 in the nation to being regarded as "the best public school system in the world."
In remarks that were both broader in scope and more detailed than he has been in the past on education, O'Malley laid out seven key goals that he wants the state board to meet. Several of the initiatives would take advantage of unprecedented levels of federal funding and would require Maryland to raise standards, particularly in middle and high school.
O'Malley urged that the state begin "international benchmarking," or measuring performance so that students' results can be compared with those in other countries. He also called for a tracking system that would chart the progress of individual students from elementary school through college.
"If we want our students to compete in the global economy with students from Europe, Asia and across the world, we should benchmark their academic achievements against students from ... elsewhere in the world," he said.
According to education experts, such a move could be risky because standardizing academic assessments is likely to expose gaps in achievement that are not apparent now.
By making his priorities clear, O'Malley appears for the first time to be trying to put his stamp on Maryland education and is asking the state school board to become far more active than in recent years, when state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has almost single-handedly laid out the vision for kindergarten through 12th grade.
O'Malley's new direction comes as the board begins to set priorities and nearly all of its 11 members are or soon will be his appointees.
"Thank you for laying out with such clarity and specificity our work assignment for the next 15 years. We will use this as a touchstone for our vision," said James H. DeGraffenreidt, Jr., president of the board.
The governor suggested that the state board meet with counterparts in Virginia and the District of Columbia and said that he had discussed the idea with Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. O'Malley said that he would host such a meeting at Government House and that he hopes that the result might be a regional approach to measuring performance that "might be a little less scary doing it together."
Part of the O'Malley agenda appears to stem from a meeting Monday with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington.
Billions in new federal dollars, beyond the $1.1 billion economic stimulus money allotted to Maryland, will be available under competitive grants.
For instance, the Obama administration will be offering $5 billion to "spur a race to the top among the states working to enhance academic standards, achieve equity in the distribution of teachers between high- and low-poverty schools, and improve data collection and usage," O'Malley told the board.
O'Malley said he believes that a state that has twice this year been ranked as No. 1 in the nation, in Education Week and by the College Board for Advanced Placement pass rates, should be in a good position to compete for the federal grants.
He said the board would need to act quickly and approve proposals that do not require long-term financial commitments by the state. If the board decides that legislation is necessary, he would be glad to push for it, he said.
He suggested that the state should take on a slightly more powerful role by insisting on changes by local school systems. Traditionally, most of the power over what is taught in Maryland classrooms has been held by local school boards.
Grasmick said she was pleased with the governor's proposals because she has begun work on similar initiatives, including more training for principals and teachers, an emphasis on vocational education, and better math and science instruction. Grasmick said she has been working with Achieve, a national group that has been looking at international benchmarking.
But O'Malley is clearly pushing for change at a much greater speed than is usual for education bureaucracies.
Among the priorities stated yesterday by O'Malley are improving science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM education. He asked the board to add environmental science and financial literacy to the STEM curriculum.
O'Malley also said he wants better career and technology education - courses that will train students for jobs. He said the state needs high school graduates who are better trained for nursing and the biosciences.
The governor also wants to improve the training and recruitment of teachers and principals.
Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso said that he agrees with the governor's proposal to measure students against others around the world. Baltimore has recently agreed to take part in testing that would enable its students' achievement to be measured against that of other U.S. urban school districts.
"I believe we need to know where we stand," Alonso said.
Members of the state school board seemed receptive to the governor's initiatives, but also expressed support for the need to improve teacher quality and to offer more competitive salaries for educators.
Gov. Martin O'Malley says that Maryland schools should:
* Seek competitive federal grants.
* Devise a way to measure students' performance by international standards.
* Better prepare students for college.
* Improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
* Teach environmental and financial literacy in the STEM curriculum.
* Improve career and technology curriculums, aiming for jobs after high school.
* Improve recruitment of teachers and principals.