Kalman Hettleman: Maryland Inexcusably Slams Shut the Gateway to Literacy

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By Kalman R. Hettleman

The writer was a member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — the Kirwan Commission, a former Baltimore City school board member, a former deputy mayor of Baltimore and a former Maryland secretary of Human Resources.

Public education will be contentious in Maryland politics for many years to come. The academic life or death of our schoolchildren especially those who are poor and of color will be at stake. While the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future is praiseworthy, it charts a course that won’t be completed until 2034 at the earliest. There are many obstacles and uncertainties that lie ahead.

My goal, in past and future commentaries, is to shine light on these looming school issues from inside and outside perspectives. I’ve been a longtime insider at the intersection of state and local policy and politics, as well as an outside analyst, advocate and writer.

From any perspective, it’s not easy to plumb the complex and fiercely politicized education depths. And yet there is also the danger that we may be so overwhelmed that we fail to seize the ready opportunity to achieve dramatic reform. That reform would teach all students the foundational skills for reading in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

Unfortunately, Maryland lags behind other states in striving to attain early literacy, and this is an inexcusable tragedy. The evidence is undisputed that students who fail to master foundational reading skills in early grades almost never learn to read proficiently. Early illiteracy endures. The gateway to success in all spheres of life education, work and citizenship is slammed shut.

The tragedy is all the more appalling because it is preventable. Much evidence already shows that educators, if given proper supports, know how to teach reading skills to all students, including effective interventions for struggling learners who are disproportionately low-income. In fact, almost all states, including Maryland, have laws that more or less require evidence-based early literacy instruction.

But Maryland conspicuously lags where it counts the most: in how well states carry out the laws. As the Council of Chief State School Officers puts it, more important than existing laws is “how states choose to implement their laws.” And when it comes to implementation and accountability, Maryland has a dismal record. According to a recent state-by-state analysis of early literacy programs, Maryland is in the lower ranks with a “minimal” rating.

In fairness, in every state most students are failing to achieve literacy, and Maryland is in the middle of the pack. But this is still heartbreaking. Only about one-third of all Maryland students are at or above proficiency in reading. For students who are poor and of color, only 20 percent are at or above proficiency.

One would think that Maryland a wealthy and relatively progressive state would be doing much better. Yet we have faltered for years. Regulations that mandate appropriate assistance for struggling readers have been ignored. In 2017, House Bill 978 sought to pressure state and local educators to effectively implement evidence-based interventions as required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. But an independent review in 2017 found more weaknesses than strengths in Maryland’s plan. In the last five years, the governor and General Assembly have largely shrugged off many efforts led by Decoding Dyslexia of Maryland to bring Maryland up to par with dyslexia initiatives in other states.

Even two recent Blueprint early literacy programs have come up short. One, a tutoring program under House Bill 1415 (2018); the other, Transitional Supplemental Instruction under Blueprint legislation, Senate Bill 1030 (2019) and House Bill 1300 (2020).  In each instance, the Maryland State Department of Education has done little to condition grants on meaningful plans, to offer substantial technical assistance, to collect uniform data for purposes of evaluation, and to monitor implementation.

Further, the same pattern has limited implementation of Senate Bill 734, the Ready to Read Act (2019). The Act calls for early screening for reading difficulties and “evidence-based instruction for students at risk of reading difficulties” in kindergarten and 1st grade. To its credit, MSDE by regulation extended the requirements to grades 2 and 3. But overall, there have been huge gaps and delays in implementation that can’t be blamed on COVID-19.

Of course, it isn’t enough just to name and shame past failures. The big question is: Why? Despite scientific knowledge of the paramount importance of early literacy and how to achieve it, and despite so many laws already on the books, why is Maryland lagging? In my view, the governor, General Assembly and educators statewide share the blame, but the buck stops first and foremost at MSDE.

MSDE’s severe management deficiencies are well documented, and reflected in the Blueprint’s creation of an Accountability and Implementation Board that has the power to usurp MSDE’s governing role. But as a practical matter, that board can’t succeed unless MSDE does its job right in the first place. And MSDE can’t do its job right without a transformation of its management capacity and culture.

The chances of MSDE pulling it off vastly improved with the state school board’s appointment three months ago of a new state superintendent, Mohammed Choudhury. From all indications, Mr. Choudhury is energetic, smart and savvy, so the appointment shows that the state board, commendably, has gotten the message that change is urgently needed.

But Mr. Choudhury must get help from the governor and General Assembly. Over many years, even when funding for early literacy has increased, MSDE has been starved of staff resources for implementation. MSDE does not have a single staff person dedicated fully to implementing the Ready to Read Act. In part, Annapolis has allowed MSDE’s capacity to shrink because of the politics of local control. The governor and legislature must stiffen their political spines and support MSDE’s proper exercise of its responsibilities. Local school systems will welcome effective assistance.

There’s more to be written at a later time on the many steps that MSDE must take to reshape its reputation and record. But K-3 literacy, because of its overall impact, must receive the highest, urgent priority. Mr. Choudhury might consider creating a state literacy office, director and stakeholder advisory council, as some states have done. And MSDE can do more to channel various funds (such as COVID relief) to early literacy. Consideration should also be given to the creation of a quasi-public Maryland Early Literacy Research Institute in partnership with a university or other research organization.

There’s no excuse for Maryland to continue to lag in fulfilling every child’s moral and legal right to learn to read.