Signs appeared in windows of the state education office building several months ago, reading "Maryland Public Schools: #1 in the nation again" after the state received Education Week's top billing for a second year in a row.
But they were perhaps just window dressing, obscuring what many education observers say is the state's failure to press forward with a new agenda that other states have begun to embrace.
Maryland is applying for up to $250 million from the federal Race to the Top program, which requires the state to show that it is pursuing Obama administration reforms that change teacher training and pay, promote charter schools and tackle troubled schools. Though the state has recently passed legislation that extends from two to three years the time it takes teachers to gain tenure, and requires teachers to be evaluated in part based on student test data, some experts say it has not done enough.
Questions have emerged as to why Gov. Martin O'Malley and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick have not been able to aggressively pursue reforms that would continue to keep the state at the national forefront.
Education observers seem to agree that there are multiple reasons, but many believe teacher unions have become one of the impediments to change. Others question the No. 1 ranking and say the state's education reputation is based in part on the state's wealth.
In the mid-1990s, the state was among the first in the nation to adopt an accountability system when it put in place testing of students in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.
Then, in 2002, the state legislature revamped the formula for funding public education. The Bridge to Excellence Act, known as Thornton, not only committed the state to increase funding by $2 billion over five years, but it provided for a more equitable distribution of the money. "As far as I know, Thornton is the best law in the country, except for Hawaii, which has only one school system," said Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, a former Baltimore school board member who has continued to be involved in education issues.
But Maryland has not been ahead of other states in pushing in the sensitive area of changes in teacher pay, evaluation and certification.
"A lot of the issues that are considered progressive in nature are not the issues that the teachers unions support, and Maryland is a very strong union state," said Kate Walsh, a member of the state school board. "Heavily Democratic states have been less likely to adopt the more progressive teacher reforms."
In education, the lines between Democratic and Republican proposals are blurred. Republicans have generally endorsed charter schools and pay-for-performance incentives for teachers and principals, but the Obama administration is now pushing some of those same measures in Race to the Top.
"The major voice that is heard in the legislature is the teachers union. It is always hard to get something through the legislature that is not in the interest of the teachers union," said Robert Embry, president of the Abell Foundation. Maryland, he pointed out, lags behind on several key teacher issues. For instance, the majority of states require new teachers to be in the job three years before receiving tenure, with some states now extending that to five years. The Maryland General Assembly only just extended teacher tenure from two to three years.
In addition, Embry said, Maryland is one of the few states that requires charter school teachers to be in the union. And while many states have been moving away from basing teacher pay solely on seniority, Maryland got a law through the legislature only this year that would require student achievement to be a significant factor in teacher evaluations. The original legislation called for student achievement to be 50 percent of the evaluation but was weakened to allow local districts to negotiate on developing the evaluation system. If an agreement isn't reached, they must adopt a state system.
By comparison, Florida's legislature just passed one of the most sweeping teacher pay laws in the nation. The bill, which was vetoed by the governor last week after pressure, would have tied teacher evaluations, raises and contract renewal to the test scores of their students.
The Maryland State Education Association, which represents teachers in all jurisdictions but Baltimore City, is not opposed to having student achievement as some part of the evaluation system. However, Adam Mendelson, the managing director for communications at the union, said in an e-mail that the local unions, not the MSEA, would decide whether they want to sign on to the changes that are part of the state's Race to the Top application.
Some education observers believe that Maryland did not pursue legislative changes as aggressively as it should have because of a poor personal relationship between Grasmick and O'Malley. The pair failed to present a united front in pushing for the changes that would give the state a competitive position in applying for Race to the Top.
But others argue that their relationship did not prevent Grasmick and the governor's staff from working hard to get the legislation through, and that the problem was the teacher unions.
Grasmick acknowledges that she has confronted difficulties in getting through what she sees as the third wave of reform needed in public schools in Maryland. And it appears that she will try through regulations to shore up areas that the recently passed legislation did not address. Last week, she said she will ask the state board to require some changes to the teacher evaluation system, including requiring student assessments to be 50 percent of the evaluations.
As a wealthy state, Maryland schools have benefited from the fact that many children come from households where many parents are well-educated and have high expectations for their children. In addition, the state has more money than others to boost the quality of its public schools.
Given the general satisfaction that parents have with the suburban school systems, it is hard for education officials to persuade middle-class parents and teachers to support change, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy.
"The biggest innovation is happening in the cities because they had nowhere else to go," he said.
Baltimore City is considered the hotbed of reform in the state. The city has the majority of the state's charter schools, has closed down poorly performing schools, has given principals more autonomy and has experimented with breaking up its large middle and high schools as well as with employing private operators.
Several educators have questioned Maryland's No. 1 ranking, pointing out that its scores on national tests place it in the middle of the pack of states. They say Maryland has one of the weakest charter school laws in the nation and never attempted to get a statewide data system implemented that can track student achievement and link it to teachers.
Jennings and other national education experts have questioned the priorities of the Obama administration. "What the administration is reflecting is the view of the reform groups and foundations, but may not be a reflection of what it takes to achieve well," he said. He added that foreign countries with enviable school systems have clear expectations for what teachers should teach and higher standards for qualifying teachers for the profession.
Grasmick disagrees and says she is committed to trying to push the state forward. "The world is changing around us, and if we are just content with the status quo, that is damaging in terms of opportunities for our students," Grasmick said.