Warning signs

Maryland achieved an odd distinction last week. It was rated by Education Week magazine as having the top education system in the nation for the second year in a row. And it was ranked by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools as having the worst charter school law in the country. It would be easy to dismiss the report by the charter schools advocacy group -- after all, if we're No. 1, why bother with charter schools? But the truth is that even if we are as good as Education Week says we are, that's not good enough, and the details of the rankings reveal weaknesses that will prevent our children from competing fully in the global economy for years to come.

It's clear from Education Week's analysis that some of the policy decisions Maryland has made have paid off. State schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick has long focused on early childhood education, and that helps boost Maryland's ranking. The relatively small number of school districts in Maryland helps reduce funding inequities, and the massive infusion of state schools spending through the Thornton formula puts the state near the top in financial support for education.

But some of Maryland's good fortune is also the product of being a wealthy state. Maryland ranks highly in the chance for success in large part not because of the achievements of students but because of those of their parents. The fact that high percentages of Maryland adults now have advanced degrees, good jobs and high salaries doesn't mean that similar numbers of children in the state will enjoy the same success in the future.

This is particularly true if you consider a fact that is glaringly apparent to anyone who follows education in Maryland but which only occasionally peeks through the data considered by Education Week. Maryland has many high-achieving students -- the large number of students who score well on Advanced Placement exams testifies to that -- but also large populations of students, predominantly in poor jurisdictions, who are failing to meet even the most basic of standards.

This piece of data shows up in the Education Week report but isn't considered in the rankings: Maryland ranks 50th in the nation in the achievement gap between poor students and others in eighth-grade math. Perhaps not coincidentally, Maryland ranks well below the national average in the experience level of its eighth-grade math teachers and in the experience gap between math teachers of poor students and those who teach their more affluent peers.

We have a school system that works well for many but which still fails thousands of students every year. That is unacceptable, and it lends support to Ms. Grasmick's push for reforms.

As part of the federal Race to the Top grant program, Ms. Grasmick is pushing three ideas: increasing the length of time before teachers can get tenure, linking teacher evaluations to student performance and providing incentives for teachers to go into the areas where they're most needed. Those reforms are important, but more than that is required. Maryland also needs to strengthen its alternative pathways to teacher certification -- programs like Teach for America have to turn away hundreds of teachers who want to work in Baltimore City schools every year because of the state's current cumbersome, inflexible standards -- and to beef up its charter school law.

Charters have become popular and effective in Baltimore, where schools CEO Andrés Alonso has made them a key component of his strategy. But everywhere else in the state, they are few and far between. The charter school alliance highlighted a major weakness: In Maryland, there is no independent authority that can approve charter schools other than the local school districts. In practice, suburban districts, even those that badly need education innovation, have rejected charters, often for no better reason than to avoid the competition they pose to traditional schools. That must change. The state also needs to change rules that prevent the state from providing capital funding for charter school facilities.

To her credit, Ms. Grasmick has not looked at this year's Education Week ranking as a justification for maintaining the status quo. In recent weeks, she has realized that the state is ill positioned to compete for the hundreds of millions in federal grants being offered in the Race to the Top program and, more importantly, has concluded that the reforms being pushed by the Obama administration would be important to pursue even if there was no money involved.

But she's not running for election this year, and Gov. Martin O'Malley and all 188 members of the General Assembly are. It would be much easier for them to take to the campaign trail with the message that Maryland schools are best in the nation rather than acknowledging the gross inequities of the system and the legitimate doubts about whether even best in the nation is good enough to compete in an increasingly interconnected world. The temptation to rest on their laurels will be even greater considering the objection of the state teachers unions to many of the reforms needed to compete in Race to the Top -- and the unions' clout in the election.

It was eight years ago that the General Assembly approved the Thornton plan that has pumped billions into the state's schools. That vote was politically risky -- it put the state on the hook for a massive new spending program without identifying a clear way to pay for it. That fact has contributed to the state's fiscal woes ever since, but it has also paid clear dividends in the achievement of our students. It's time once again for lawmakers to take a tough vote for education. Something much more important than their electoral future hangs in the balance.

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