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Commentary Education

Opinion: For whom will the back-to-school bells toll? State Superintendent Choudhury holds the key

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury spoke with members of the press outside Loch Raven High School on the first day of classes in 2021. Photo from the Executive Office of the Governor.

The new school year brings energy, hope, and fingers crossed. Some educators even foresee turning the COVID adversity to advantage because of lessons learned, like those on tutoring and online instruction.

On the other hand, the reality is not rosy. Learning loss is much deeper than realized. Student behavior and emotional problems are worse than ever. Teacher vacancies are extraordinarily high. An unprecedented one-third of all Maryland’s local school districts will have new permanent superintendents this year.

Federal COVID funds could enable progress. But that assumes the funds are well spent, which generally hasn’t happened so far in Maryland and nationally.

All this notwithstanding, is there any chance that Maryland school bells will ring with any good news? Thankfully yes. I am upbeat because of the unique combination of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future and, arguably even more important, the leadership of state superintendent Mohammed Choudhury.

My commentary last October, “The First 100 Days of Maryland’s New School Chief,” stated that Mr. Choudhury seems to have all the skills to pull off implementation of the Blueprint and even enhance it. Local teachers and administrators are heroic frontline troops, but state superintendents must be commanders-in-chief who lead the way. This role is extremely under-rated. We don’t need new laws as much as effective implementation of laws already on the books. And state/local relationships, under an adept state superintendent, can be more win-win than adversarial.

Choudhury gets it. And I give him a grade of A-/B+ for his first year.

For this article, I quizzed over 20 key players — including legislators, Maryland State Department of Education staff under Mr. Choudhury, and a wide variety of educational groups and advocates. I also took into account my own direct work with MSDE.

Opinions are remarkably consistent. He’s first and foremost smart — also in sync with the Blueprint, passionately committed to equity, politically savvy, self-confident and persuasive. He balances the zeal of a reformer with a deliberate approach. And he is off to an impressive start.

He gets general praise from power players in Annapolis, including legislators and lobbying groups. Respected House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery), a former teacher, says Mr. Choudhury “is doing a fantastic job … and building relationships with legislators.” The same seems true as he interacts with the heavyweight Maryland State Education Association (the largest teachers union), and the Blueprint Accountability and Implementation Board. His boss the State Board of Education appears enthusiastic and supportive.

Moreover, he has compiled an indefatigable track record of community engagement: spanning surveys, listening sessions, visits to local school systems, focus groups, and roundtables. For instance, Frank Patinelli, an education advocate for ACLU of Maryland, applauds his decision to personally chair a Blueprint workgroup on English language learners.

He has also drawn national attention and mainly local applause for his most important program initiative: called Maryland Leads, it distributes to local school systems a large pot of COVID federal dollars that he will allow to be spent only on a limited number of evidence-based programs.

All the while, he benefits from frequent sentiment that one of the best things going for him is that he’s not his predecessor, who was widely criticized for lack of engagement.

So, given all this praise, why not a grade of A?  Predictably, since his job can be so controversial, a number of concerns were also expressed off the record. Repeatedly, he was portrayed as being touchy about criticism. Closely akin is the oft-stated comment that, while he is very knowledgeable, he can be closed off to the views of others.

These misgivings are voiced by insiders and outsiders. Many MSDE staff complain that he relies only on a small inner circle, creating internal bottlenecks; they feel holdover staff are deemed guilty by association with past MSDE failures. Stakeholders too, while appreciative of introductory sessions with him, describe him as more of a talker (especially on his experience in Texas) than a listener. They lament the difficulty of gaining a meaningful role so far in his planning and decision-making.

One clear example is his lack of involvement with K-3 literacy advocates (me included). He waxes eloquent on the paramount importance of early literacy, and “science of reading” is a top priority in Maryland Leads grants. Yet, abundant national literature already spells out what evidence-based policies are needed, and MSDE was making notable progress with stakeholder input before Mr. Choudhury arrived. But he totally halted this effort. As a result, pending his long-promised comprehensive plan which is months (if not a year) away, our most vulnerable students have lost a precious and often irretrievable year in learning to read.

Other advocacy groups express similar reservations, wondering whether he will follow through, build relationships and provide meaningful engagement as decisions and plans evolve.

Conspicuously silent are two influential groups that represent local school systems: the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland. They declined to respond to my inquiries. This fits the clear impression, gleaned from many sources, that they are wary.

To wrap up this balance sheet, the positives exceed the negatives. A-/B+ (without grade inflation) is a helluva good grade. And institutional reform invariably triggers concerns, inside and outside.

Still, hopefully, Mr. Choudhury will take note. From little seeds of doubt can grow mighty obstacles as the honeymoon first year ends. He’s way too smart not to know this, and I’m optimistic that he will live up to his A+ potential. The stakes are high and Maryland children and families are rooting for him. He merits high hopes and strong support from all of us.