The announcement that Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick will retire in June after 20 years on the job marks a watershed for public education in the state, whose history could fairly be divided into two eras — before and after Ms. Grasmick. Her extraordinary leadership raised the bar on what was possible for schools across the state and won Maryland national recognition as an education powerhouse. She's been called "the heart and soul" of Maryland schools.
Whoever succeeds her will have big shoes to fill. Ms. Grasmick was an untiring advocate for reform whose insistence on excellence often led her to butt heads with governors — she served during four administrations — as well as the state's most powerful lawmakers. But she was no prima donna: She made sure she was right on the issues first — be it raising standards on statewide exams, greater state aid to poor school districts, strengthening curriculum requirements or tying teacher evaluations to student achievement — and only then refused to back down when critics complained she was going too far or too fast. She had the courage of her convictions and a seemingly boundless energy to act on them, often driving herself from one corner of the state to another to keep up a dizzying schedule of school visits, staff meetings and personal appearances.
Yet for all her tenacity as a reformer, Ms. Grasmick could also turn on the charm. She had an uncanny ability to connect with others and enlist them in her causes. A gifted consensus-builder, she relied on a statewide network of allies whose support allowed her to stand her ground against opponents. They included local school boards, district superintendants, teachers unions, parents groups and influential lawmakers. Her deep roots among all the significant players involved in shaping education policy gave her what amounted to her own independent political base on which to stake out positions. She had an infectious enthusiasm and a politician's touch for persuading people to see things her way, but her ability to win friends was in large part also a result of her own remarkable openness to others' views and her willingness to explore new ideas and new ways of doing things.
Ms. Grasmick also had that rarest quality in a public official, being able to admit mistakes and take steps to correct them. When the Obama administration announced a new federal school funding competition called Race to the Top in 2009, for example, Ms. Grasmick assumed Maryland was well-positioned for the prize based its No. 1 ranking in Education Week magazine's annual survey of the nation's best school systems. In fact, she argued the point vociferously when some began to question whether more reforms were needed to make Maryland competitive.
But after the state was turned down by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a grant to help it complete its RTTT application in December of that year — a decision apparently based on the state's outdated policy on tenure — Ms. Grasmick realized the reforms she had in place weren't likely to satisfy the tough requirements for RTTT. She decided to skip the first round of applications to give the General Assembly time to make changes in the law.
That put her at odds with Gov. Martin O'Malley, who wanted the state's application submitted immediately, and who was in any case only lukewarm about enacting new tenure rules and tying teacher evaluations to performance. Ms. Grasmick refused to be pressured, however. Only after lawmakers passed new legislation to strengthen Maryland's competitive position — and the governor signed it — did she allow Maryland's RTTT application to be submitted. As a result, Maryland was one of only a handful of states in the nation to win millions of additional dollars in federal education funding.
As she prepares to step down after two decades leading the state's K-12 public schools, Ms. Grasmick can be proud of the legacy she hands her successor. She instituted the High School Assessments to ensure every Maryland high school graduate was prepared for college or a career, and pushed for more students to take Advanced Placement exams; she championed early education and introduced statewide testing in grades three through eight. Maryland schools have been No. 1 in Education Week's national ranking for three straight years, and Maryland recently earned the College Board's top ranking for the state with the highest percentage of successful AP test takers.
It is probably safe to say no state school superintendent in history has done more to foster educational excellence in Maryland or raise the quality of instruction in its schools. Her tenure has been characterized by great courage in fighting for the reforms she believed, and her efforts helped ensure that Maryland remained at the forefront of innovation and progress. She was one of a kind, and she will surely be missed.
Nonetheless, she must be replaced. As the state Board of Education conducts a search to find her successor, it would do well to consider the traits that made her successful. It was not just a matter of having the right experience or ideas about education. Many possible candidates for the job, in state and outside of it, can meet that hurdle. What has been critical was her ability to set an ambitious agenda and build support for it — something that will be essential as the state moves to implement new teacher evaluation procedures, adopts a new curriculum and develops assessment tests to match it. And that's not to speak of the need for an advocate to strengthen Maryland's charter school laws.
Much of Ms. Grasmick's ability stemmed from a lifetime of relationships in Maryland's educational and political establishment, and that will be impossible to replace. But in the case of Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso, we have seen it is possible for someone without that history to achieve the same results. We certainly wouldn't advocate that Mr. Alonso be named to Ms. Grasmick's job — he is needed in Baltimore — but he proves that it is possible to find someone who can step in and quickly build coalitions around ambitious and controversial reforms. The state board needs to find a new superintendent who demands excellence — and to give him or her the freedom to pursue it.