If you live in Howard County, there’s a better than 70 percent chance that your kids can attend an above-average public school, and a two-in-five shot that they’ll go to one of the best schools in the state. If you live in Baltimore City, there’s little chance (less than 2 percent, to be precise) that your kids’ school just got a top, five-star rating from the state. But there’s a 60 percent chance that it will be below average, and of the 35 schools the state gave just one star, 23 were in Baltimore City.
Ratings like these are an imperfect science. Tuesday’s release of the scores was the first time Maryland has attempted something like this, and there's plenty of room for debate about the factors the Department of Education included and how they were weighted. The General Assembly (at the behest of the state teachers union) got involved in deciding how the sausage would be made, and the state school board had long debates about how to calibrate the results. The fact that there are far more five-star schools than one-star schools suggests they may have been generous in their assessments.
But what is inescapable in looking at the data is the conclusion that a Maryland child’s chances in life are inextricably linked to where he or she grows up. If you're in one of the state’s large and wealthy counties (Howard, Montgomery) or small and relatively homogeneous ones (Carroll, Calvert), the odds are that your kids will to to a school full of high-achieving students who are rarely absent and have access to a wide and rich curriculum. If you live in poorer county (Somerset) or one with a large minority population (Prince George’s), your child's opportunities will be much more limited. It should come as little surprise that Baltimore City, the site of Maryland’s deepest concentration of poverty and a place shaped by decades of institutionalized racism in the form of segregation, blockbusting and redlining, would also have the most low-ranked schools. Previous versions of the Maryland School Report Card allowed users to figure that out in general terms by comparing test scores, but this new method of presenting the data, which is designed to offer a more holistic assessment of school quality, does so in stark detail.
Since these are the first rankings of their kind, they amount to a snapshot in time and don’t reflect the trajectory of any particular school or district. In a statement, city schools CEO Sonja Santelises emphasized the system’s efforts to raise achievement through a concentrated focus on literacy, and indeed, many city schools showed solid gains on standardized tests last year. She also noted that the city has already closed or is considering closing some of the lowest performing schools, and others are producing remarkable results under challenging conditions. Furthermore, it’s worth mentioning that some suburban districts’ results were disappointing too — Anne Arundel’s elementary schools, for example, did only slightly better in the aggregate than the city’s did. And finally, future iterations of the data will better integrate socio-demographic information so the schools’ rankings can be better understood in context.
The bottom line, though, is that Maryland’s constitution requires that the General Assembly establish a “thorough and efficient system of free public schools,” and this data shows just how unevenly that’s been accomplished. It comes at a fortuitous time, as Maryland is in the final stages of a years-long effort to evaluate its school systems and consider changes to their funding, structure and standards. The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, better known as the Kirwan Commission, is in the midst of finalizing its recommendations in areas including teacher pay and standards, early childhood education, career and technical training and, crucially, the distribution of state funds to local school systems. That last part is destined to be a politically fraught exercise as legislators seek to protect their counties’ interests and look for excuses not to send money where it's most needed.