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Maryland's latest school accountability scores show a movement toward the middle-ratings but overall, it continues to demonstrate that the highest performing schools can generally be found in the highest income neighborhoods. An equitable funding of schools, as recommended by the Kirwan Commission, remains the best answer to that challenge.
Maryland's latest school accountability scores show a movement toward the middle-ratings but overall, it continues to demonstrate that the highest performing schools can generally be found in the highest income neighborhoods. An equitable funding of schools, as recommended by the Kirwan Commission, remains the best answer to that challenge. (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis)

The latest Maryland School Report Card is out and will no doubt leave parents and other stakeholders scurrying to check out the results. Did my child’s school earn one, two, three, four or five stars? Is it better or worse than last year’s inaugural rating? If the purpose of the report card was to give everyone a quick and easy way to judge school performance, it succeeds as intended. Five is an “A,” one is an “F,” or something proximate. Those who live in the shrinking number of top-performing districts will find comfort; those who live in low-scoring zones will not. Who knows what those living in the growing middle range will think (the 3-star rating is now applied to one-third of all schools instead of last year’s one-quarter).

And yet, none of this comes as a surprise. Instead, it confirms what we already know: The most affluent neighborhoods are generally home to the highest performing schools, with the exception of magnet and charter schools that draw from beyond the immediate community. In Baltimore County, for example, the Woodlawn area schools perform poorly in the ratings (including a two-star high school), the Hereford zone schools do great (the high school is a 5-star). Woodlawn home prices fluctuate around $200,000, while Hereford lists at more than three times as much. How much of Hereford’s success takes place in the classroom and how much in the living room? Even a rating system that’s supposed to consider growth and not just one year’s performance can’t fully make that judgment.

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Just look at the actual measurements: English and math standardized test score results, chronic absenteeism and graduation rates are among the key factors. Now imagine the advantage higher income students from stable households have — with all the books, computers, mentoring, travel, academic support, health care, counseling and extracurricular opportunities that come with it — compared to a child with none of the above. Low-performing schools may well deserve their abysmal score, but for many, their task from Day 1 was more difficult because they didn’t have as large a concentration of well-nourished, well-rested, well-prepared, well-supported young people reliably and cooperatively marching in through the front door each day.

Any rational school administrator who looks at this overall results is certain to recognize that the schools serving the most challenged populations, whether it’s Somerset County’s Westover or Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester, face the toughest task. A student who is ill-prepared for school doesn’t suddenly show up better prepared the next year. What’s needed are the proven techniques to reach such youngsters, including one-on-one coaching, counseling, remedial classes, after-school programs, pre-kindergarten classes, higher teacher salaries to attract the best and brightest instructors willing to tackle such a challenge and on and on.

This is not to knock the ratings. The system likely is, as state educational officials have observed, the best rating system Maryland has ever produced. More important is how these ratings can point to improvements. A three-star school that earned just two stars last year may be something to crow about, particularly if educators find ways to build on that success and it’s not just a change in criteria.

That’s why the Kirwan Commission recommendations on education and the prospect of a major injection of state aid remain the best hope for turning those one-star schools around. This is a necessity if Maryland is to offer a workforce capable of finding employment in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.

An economic assessment of the Kirwan Commission recommendations by Sage Policy Group — commissioned by Kirwan supporters, Strong Schools Maryland — concluded that the return on investment is likely to be significant. The recommended reforms would likely encourage more students to go into skilled trades or higher education post high school, leading to reduced public assistance and incarceration costs, and much higher lifetime salaries (high school drop-outs earn roughly $450,000 in a lifetime, whereas graduate degree holders earn an average of $2.4 million) and state and local taxes paid.

“Under the status quo,” the report notes, “a representative cohort of Maryland public school students (about 69,000 students) arriving in ninth grade could be expected to pay $8.9 billion in State and local taxes over a lifetime. Given improved educational outcomes and attainment, this same group would pay an estimated $12.5 billion State and local taxes.”

What’s more, the state will have “more than fully recovered its investment in public education reform” by fiscal year 2046 — roughly a generation away. Imagine where we’ll be then if we don’t make the reform commitment.

Rarely has the term “investment” to describe public funding been more appropriate than when applied to raising the bar of K-12 public schools.

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