Dear Mohammed Choudhury:
Congratulations to you and the state board on your appointment as Maryland superintendent of schools and head of the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). As someone who for many years has exposed MSDE’s severe shortcomings, I am greatly heartened by your track record and youthful energy. And here, no surprise, is a list of suggestions.
1. Put my suggestions at the top of the mountainous pile of advice you’ll be getting. OK, I’m kidding, but I do guarantee that my list will be fairly unconventional and sometimes counterintuitive. So please read on.
2. Don’t get carried away by the hype around your appointment. You’ve been heralded as “transformational,” and MSDE needs big-time change. But don’t be tempted or pressured to come up with splashy plans and short-term fixes; these will set you up for failure. Remember that the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform effort has a time frame of at least 13 years. Look to the long haul.
3. Don’t believe the myth that your hands are tied by “local control.” Federal and Maryland laws clearly empower MSDE with full authority to “exercise general control and supervision” over schools. The myth, to the contrary, is perpetuated by local school districts which resist state guidance. You can, however, earn their trust by aligning high state standards and regulations with realistic expectations and adequate resources.
4. Recognize that innovation is overrated. Robert Slavin, the late esteemed research expert, nailed it: “The problem of education reform is not a lack of good ideas, but a lack of good ideas sensibly implemented.” As frustrated members of the General Assembly will testify, MSDE has constantly failed to ensure that present laws are given an operational chance to succeed. Change must be grounded less in innovation and more in effective management execution.
5. Rebuild MSDE’s management capacity and culture. This is by far the most important key to your success. MSDE is widely faulted for being nontransparent, defensive and weak. The COVID-19 chaos over the past year is just the latest example. There is a long pattern of mismanagement. MSDE fails to incorporate evidence-based best practices in worthwhile manuals. It fails to meaningfully monitor, evaluate and engage local districts in continuous research and development. It is reluctant to challenge the status quo.
6. Get MSDE staff the support and working conditions they now lack. For the most part, they are overworked and underpaid. You must push for the long-delayed independent audit of workloads and pay. Also encourage staff to think boldly and break free from dumbed-down bureaucratic consensus.
7. Stick to your apparent blend of liberal and conservative education principles. You are portrayed, thankfully, as committed to progressive steps to address poverty and race. But even if Maryland elects a progressive governor in 2024 (to go along with the liberal legislature), don’t abandon your past support for some policies typically associated with educational conservatives, like charter schools and tough accountability measures.
8. Take a fresh look at the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. The work of the Kirwan Commission that developed it and the blueprint are major accomplishments. But learning loss during the pandemic has revealed the extent to which the overwhelming majority of students were far below grade proficiency prior to the pandemic. Some blueprint provisions can be reprioritized to get more aid more quickly to students who are most in need.
9. Embrace the blueprint Accountability and Implementation Board. The board, unprecedented in the U.S., has sweeping powers to direct the overall functions of MSDE. As a result, fearing micromanagement, the current Maryland superintendent and state board opposed its creation. Its enactment, therefore, was a stunning vote of no confidence in MSDE’s stewardship. But if you change MSDE’s capacity and culture, you can steer the board from micromanagement to macro-support for your leadership.
10. Make early literacy your highest priority. There is no low-hanging school reform fruit. But we know how to achieve what is indisputably the single most important academic goal: enabling all students to achieve basic skills in reading in kindergarten through third grade. Yet, MSDE lags badly behind many states in guiding and monitoring programs that address early reading deficits, including students with dyslexia. This should be your top priority.
Thanks for taking on these challenges. And good luck!
Kalman R. Hettleman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an education policy analyst and advocate. He is a former member of Maryland’s Kirwan Commission on education reform and the Baltimore City school board.