Gov. Martin O'Malley has taken on the road to Charlotte, N.C., and to Iowa his claim that Maryland's schools are "Number One." The annual ratings by Education Week are held to justify the hundreds of millions in additional Thornton Commission spending that are at the root of state and local budget problems. These funds have been squandered on the rapidly escalating costs of "Cadillac" health insurance policies for teachers and on lockstep seniority increases not accorded other public and private work forces — while the state maintains certification requirements of 30 credit hours of mind-numbing education courses that exclude about 95 percent of its college graduates from the public teaching force.
A look at the components of the Education Week index refutes the notion that the O'Malley administration has gotten value for its money. The index does not measure the outputs of Maryland schools but their inputs. Seventeen percent of the index is based on each state's level of parental education and income. Seventeen percent is founded on assessment of bureaucratic "transitions and alignment." Sixteen percent of the rating is based on the level of state school spending and equality among districts: The fewer the districts, the better. Seventeen percent is based on various measures bundled together as "chance for success" (the state leads in the percentage of graduates taking Advanced Placement examinations, but this reflects the education and wealth of parents more than school performance). Sixteen percent of the index is based on the credentialing and centralized control of teachers.
Only one component of the index actually measures student performance: 17 percent of the index is based on student test performance, but only 39 percent of this (or 7 percent of the total) is based on actual achievement, what the public should most care about; while 39 percent is based on "improvement" over time and 22 percent on improvement over time in test results of underprivileged children. (Maryland's performance in this last area is abysmal.)
The achievement test results are credible; Maryland usually ranks about fifth, though it is far behind Massachusetts. Whether they really mean much is arguable — the tests are not "high stakes" tests for the children who take them; they measure performance in only two grades, and not the final ones; and Maryland's centralization facilitates "teaching to the test."
Suspicion of the worth of the index is enhanced by a comparison of Maryland and Nebraska. Maryland spends far more than Nebraska on its schools and has a higher percentage of college-educated parents. Nebraska is usually slightly above the middle of the pack in achievement test results, but it always is given a total rating that is last or next to last among the states. Why? Because Nebraska is a bastion of decentralization; it has more than 1,000 school districts.
Maryland has the nation's second most centralized school system. Only Hawaii, with but a single school district, surpasses it in this respect; by no particular coincidence, Hawaii has a large portion of its school-age population in private schools. Similarly, the school boards in Maryland's large suburban counties have been notably resistant to the creation of charter schools, leaving parents dissatisfied with local systems no option but to flee or resort to private schools if they can afford to do so.
Maryland is indeed close to "number one" in one notable respect: in curtailing competition among schools and school districts. Parents and citizens who must listen to Governor O'Malley's incessant boasts should now understand what it is that he is boasting about.
George Liebmann is a Baltimore lawyer. His email is email@example.com.