Time for 'bottom-up' education reform

The renewed clamor for postponement of Common Core testing provides further evidence of the failure of "top-down" reform in Maryland public schools. Who can forget MSPAP, the State Board of Education's high stakes tests for graduation; and the procrastination in fulfilling the Race to the Top promise that teacher promotions would be related to student performance?

What has not been tried is "bottom up" reform. Maryland has the nation's weakest charter school law; new schools are bound to union contracts and must be approved by local boards, whose authority they reduce. The number of charter schools has stagnated under the O'Malley-Brown administration, and there are virtually none outside of Baltimore City.


Two other measures that would allow principals and school districts to improve the quality of teaching have likewise made little progress. The Calvert Institute, for which I am the volunteer executive director, has recently issued two studies, each of about 65 pages in length and available to the public, of teacher certification rules in Maryland and of Maryland's use of Internet-based distance learning.

The study of teacher staffing reveals that Maryland has chronic shortages of various types of math, science and special education teachers, and that requirements that teachers take a year or more of methods courses exclude about 90 percent of Maryland's college graduates from the teaching force. Many other states allow teachers to qualify with only one term of education courses. Forty percent of teachers in New Jersey and a third of teachers in Texas and California are "alternatively certified," but only 12 percent of teachers are in Maryland, where such programs are available only where local districts sponsor them. Only five of Maryland's 24 school districts have done so.


Maryland's approach to distance learning has been equally backward. Of the 31 states authorizing distance learning in public schools, Maryland has the second smallest program. Montgomery County, which leads in the use of distance learning in the state, has less than 1 percent of its students involved in such courses. There is highly limited use of "blended learning," where 20 percent to 80 percent of a course is given online, although it is of obvious value in language and math courses involving repetitive drills. Maryland also makes only limited use of "flipped classrooms" where lectures are given online, freeing classroom time for individualized instruction and assistance with homework. In 2009-2010, less than a tenth of one percent of Maryland students were enrolled in virtual courses, compared with 8.1 percent in Florida and more than 2 percent in six other states.

Although the use of distance learning is in its infancy, Maryland has been especially slow-moving. Its education code flatly prohibits full-time online learning. And it vests responsibility for approval of online courses not in principals or even in local school districts, but in an office in the State Department of Education that, according to the Calvert Institute's research, had just one part-time employee and a backlog of 17 courses requiring review. A recent state law restricts courses to those "offering that which is not otherwise available … for the purposes of ensuring equality." This leveling-down approach scarcely encourages local initiative.

The dominant feature of Maryland's public school system is its centralization and its closed shop. Organizations like the Maryland State Teachers' Association and the American Civil Liberties Union constantly clamor for more school spending. But the system will not improve if it continues to fence out liberal arts and science graduates, housewives returning to the labor force, and career changers, and if it continues to obstruct new types of schools and the use of new methods of instruction.

George W. Liebmann is the volunteer executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research (