Kirwan Commission Chair: The price of improving Maryland schools is worth it

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William Kirwan, who chaired a Maryland commission on education, talks about a blueprint with a 10-year plan to improve education in the state during a news conference last March in Annapolis, Md. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is standing left and the late House Speaker Michael Busch is standing right.

Maryland’s General Assembly and Governor Larry Hogan asked me three years ago to chair a commission charged with reviewing the system of public education in the state and make recommendations on what it would take to ensure that our students achieve at the levels of students from the world’s best education systems.

This assignment has been the most important work I have done in a professional lifetime devoted to education.


The diverse group of dedicated stakeholders appointed by the governor and the legislature to the commission, after careful study and analysis, came to a remarkable consensus on where our state’s system is today, its strengths and its weaknesses and what is needed to put our system on par with the highest-achieving systems in the world.

When our commission convened, many of its members thought that Maryland schools were among the best performing in the country. Sadly, the data proves that is not the case. We learned, for example, that fewer than 40% of Maryland’s high school graduates read at the 10th grade level and can pass a basic assessment in algebra. The implications of these results for the quality of the state’s future workforce and for the career prospects of the vast majority of today’s high school graduates are deeply troubling.


Based on a careful study of the world’s best performing school systems, the commission’s final report calls for sweeping changes in Maryland’s PreK-12 system, including a major investment in early childhood education; transformation of teaching into a high status; high standards profession; creation of an internationally benchmarked curriculum that produces graduates truly college and career ready; and elimination of severe funding inequities.

While there is broad agreement that these recommendations are sensible and desirable, people often ask an important question. How can we ensure that investment in these reforms will actually achieve the desired results? This is precisely the same question the commission asked itself. After months of discussion and consultation with experts from around the world, the commission developed a highly innovative and rigorous accountability structure that should give all Marylanders confidence that funds will be invested as intended and produce the best results.

The central feature of the commission’s accountability plan is the creation of an independent oversight board of seven members, outside of the state’s existing education bureaucracy, to oversee and monitor the commission’s ten-year plan. The oversight board, which would include well-respected and highly-regarded educators and individuals who have accomplished significant systemic change in large organizations, would be appointed by the governor with the consent of the General Assembly. The board would have the policy and fiscal authority to hold all entities and agencies accountable for carrying out their parts of the plan. This would include the authority to place funds in escrow for districts that do not implement the recommendations with fidelity or do not show improvement in students’ learning outcomes. Funds placed in escrow would be released once schools and districts show the board that funding was used as intended.

A critical component of the accountability structure requires the Maryland State Department of Education to solicit detailed plans from school districts on how they will meet the goals. The department would review and recommend approval of these plans to the oversight board before new money could be released. In subsequent years, release of funds would be conditioned on a field review of schools to make certain money was used in the way it was proposed and approved the prior year.

A second component of the commission’s accountability plan requires the state department of education to monitor student progress on meeting the new College and Career Readiness standard and identify schools that don’t meet expectations. The department would establish expert review teams of professional educators who would visit underperforming schools and identify areas for improvement. Working with local school districts, the state department would then assign coaches and mentors to these schools drawn from school principals and teachers at schools with a similar demographic of students that are performing at high levels. These coaches and mentors would stay engaged until performance at the schools improves.

This is the kind of accountability structure used at the world’s best performing systems. It works for them and it will work in Maryland to create a system equal to the best in the world.

Yes, our commission is asking for an increase in school funding. But the recommendations are based on the proven practices of the world’s best performing school systems, they are affordable, and they include a strong accountability structure. This is what our state needs, and this is what our students deserve. The time to act is now. Nothing less than the future well-being of our state and its citizens, young and old, is at stake.

William Kirwan ( chairs the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education