Another laurel for Md. schools

A new report showing Maryland schools now lead the nation in efforts to boost student achievement levels has vindicated the commitment the state made more than a decade ago to adequately fund education and adopt smart policy choices that return the biggest bang for the buck. The study by Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank that tracks school reform efforts across the country, suggests that Maryland's thoughtful approach to improving education opportunities for all the state's children has positioned it to register even greater gains in the future.

Since the passage of the landmark Thornton school funding law in 2002, which was designed to reduce inequities in per-pupil funding between the state's richest and poorest school districts, Maryland students have gained nearly 50 points on the benchmark National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only measure that allows direct comparison of achievement levels in different states. Overall, the increases in Maryland were double the national average, and the gains were even more impressive among the state's most economically disadvantaged children, whose scores jumped 55 points over the same period. Clearly, the extra money pumped into the state's poorest districts by the Thornton act was well spent. That Maryland maintained its commitments during one of the worst economic downturns of the century is a testament to its priorities.

But the report's authors were equally clear that it wasn't just the money that made the difference but also how it was spent. The state early on made some conscious policy choices about how it wanted to proceed, and the decisions it made about where to invest its education dollars were driven by a determination to adopt only those reform strategies that had been proven effective by rigorous academic research.

Maryland was a leader in student assessment, having emphasized statewide standardized testing well before the No Child Left Behind era considered in this study. It has a much more centralized educational system than many states, with a small number of large school districts and significant alignment of curriculum. State education officials have also long sought to increase the quality and availability of early childhood education.

In the last few years, Maryland has made another ambitious series of policy reforms, though many are not yet fully implemented, and others are mostly too recent to explain the state's progress in the period covered by this study. Maryland is in the process of adopting the new Common Core curriculum, a uniform national standard for assessing students' progress and a computerized, longitudinal system to track student performance from kindergarten through college graduation. It also set up a system to reward top performing teachers and signed on with a testing consortium that uses the country's more rigorous assessment tool to gauge students' readiness for college or a career.

To support these initiatives, it developed a detailed plan for ranking the highest- and lowest-performing schools and set clear goals for improvement, including an 85 percent to 90 percent proficiency rate in reading and math for students in every school in the state by 2014. It required teachers and principals to adopt an approved set of best practices and instructional methods, tied teacher evaluations to student test scores and judged administrators' effectiveness by a more rigorous evaluation process.

The Education Sector study didn't consider differences in state funding levels, but it's significant that its results showed a mix of rich and poor states at both ends of the spectrum of student achievement gains. Those results led the researchers to conclude that the gains in the top-performing states were at least as much a result of the policies they had adopted as they were of the money they spent on schools.

Maryland, though, appears to have had the best of both worlds: a combination of effective policy choices and adequate funding levels to support them. It is important to remember that while Maryland has done better than other states to reduce achievement gaps, those gaps still exist. But Maryland educators can certainly take great pride in the achievements this study identified. Much more so than Maryland's recent string of No. 1 rankings in Education Week surveys, which critics complain over-emphasize funding levels rather than results, the gains posted on the National Assessment of Educational Progress validate the often-difficult choices the state has made.

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