Lillian Lowery, who served as Maryland’s public schools superintendent for three years, overseeing the transition to controversial new national curriculum standards and reforms to student discipline policies, has died at age 67.
Lowery’s family announced the death on her LinkedIn page Thursday. Additional details were not immediately available.
Educators around the state and country praised Lowery as a leader and a mentor to many in her field.
“Her passion for the education and equity of all students was unmatched,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote on Twitter. “She was a giant in our field and she will be missed.”
Former Gov. Martin O’Malley, under whose tenure the state school board hired Lowery in 2012, called her “the best school superintendent we ever had.” He noted that she was recognized for being at the top of her field by her peers around the country, and that she upheld perennial No. 1 rankings for Maryland schools in Education Week magazine.
“When she walked into a room or into a meeting, she just kind of lit up the place with her optimism, her drive and her skill,” O’Malley said. “She could listen to others, but she could also very strongly make her point.”
Dr. Lowery was a native of Gastonia, North Carolina. She was among the first students to integrate North Carolina schools, according to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, on whose board Dr. Lowery served.
She received a bachelor’s degree in English education from North Carolina Central University in 1976 and a master’s degree in education in curriculum and instruction from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 1978, and went on to start her educational career teaching English to middle schoolers in her hometown. She later taught in Virginia, and in 1995 moved into administrative positions, serving as an assistant principal and principal in Fairfax County.
She earned a doctorate of education in educational leadership and policy from Virginia Polytechnic and State University in 2004 and moved on to school system administration. She served as superintendent of the Christina School District in Delaware from 2006 to 2009 and as Delaware’s secretary of education from 2009 until 2012, when she was recruited to Maryland.
In Maryland, she oversaw the state’s adoption of Common Core, a set of standards laying out what students should know in different subjects at the end of each grade level. The policy was controversial, but Dr. Lowery was credited with easing the state’s schools into the changes it brought, including seeking extensions from the federal government to put it in place.
While some criticized aspects of Common Core and the high-stakes testing that went with it, Dr. Lowery stressed that the rigorous standards and testing could serve as tools to show educators “how to meet a student where he or she was and move them to where they needed to be in order to be successful in life,” said James DeGraffenreidt, a former state school board president who led the decision to hire Dr. Lowery.
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Under her leadership, Maryland also moved to reduce dependence on out-of-school suspensions, particularly for Black and minority students who disproportionately received those punishments, and promoted no-cost breakfast and lunch programs. Dr. Lowery was also known for promoting professional development for teachers.
“Dr. Lowery led Maryland through a time of tremendous transition and progress,” state school board President Guffrie Smith told The Baltimore Sun in 2015 after Dr. Lowery announced her resignation a year short of her four-year contract. “She positioned our state as a national leader in preparing students.”
The National Association of State Boards of Education named Dr. Lowery its Policy Leader of the Year in 2015, an honor given to policymakers or administrators who have made a significant impact on national or state education policy and education systems.
Dr. Lowery’s “calm, respectful, and persuasive leadership style has enabled her to engage educators, policymakers, and community stakeholders and reach consensus on important education issues, resulting in unprecedented progress and change in Maryland,” former Maryland state school board President Mary Kay Finan, who nominated Dr. Lowery for the award, said at the time. “Her collaborative, transparent approach enabled Maryland to reach agreement on key goals that other states have found challenging to achieve.”
She went on to become the first CEO of educational nonprofit FutureReady Columbus and vice president for PreK-12 policy, research, and practice at the Education Trust. She joined Educational Testing Service as vice president of student and teacher assessments in 2018.
She served as a mentor to many educators and administrators around the country, DeGraffenreidt said.
“She was just a wonderful human being and a great leader,” he said.