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Commentary Education

Opinion: Why did Md. fall faster than anyplace else in the national report card?

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By Joshua Michael

The writer is a resident and former teacher in Baltimore City and a doctoral candidate of Public Policy at UMBC. He currently serves as executive director of the Sherman Family Foundation, which provides grants to non-profit organizations that promote education and opportunities for young people in Baltimore with a focus on early childhood, STEM education, and thriving families.

Scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicate what many in the nation have long predicted: student learning during the pandemic suffered across the country. The story is more concerning in Maryland, where the pandemic has capped a decade of precipitous decline since 2011.

Declines in Maryland student achievement outpace most other states since 2011. In 4th grade reading and math, our progress since 2011 is the lowest in the nation, ranking 51st of 51 states and Washington, D.C., in both subjects. In 4th grade, math scale scores are down 18 points and reading scores down 19. In 8th grade, Maryland ranks tied for 51st in math and tied for 48th in reading. Eighth grade math scores are down 19 points and 8th grade reading is down 12 points.

During this decade, Maryland failed in serving students of color and those who struggle in school the most. Mean drops in achievement were shouldered more by Black and Latinx students and those in the lower percentiles on all four assessments. This pattern can be characterized by the “Matthew Effect” of accumulated advantage — students performing well lost little ground, while those struggling fell further behind. Similarly, schooling resulted in Black and Latinx students falling further behind white students, which is particularly concerning considering the population of students of color has increased from 57.5% to 66.1% since 2011.

In 2011, we were celebrating Maryland’s No. 1 ranking among schools across the country. Deep and pervasive declines since 2011 in Maryland, beyond national trends, indicate structural problems beyond the pandemic. What has happened in Maryland education, beyond the pandemic, since 2011 that might begin to help us understand the problem?

  • Shortly after the administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2011, 20-year state superintendent Dr. Nancy Grasmick retired from her post. Since then, we have had four superintendents.
  • The state began implementing new college- and career-ready standards, or the Common Core, in 2012, resulting in the development and adoption of new curriculum in local districts.
  • State assessments have changed three times — MSA, PARCC, and now MCAP.
  • Teacher production is down, with 33% fewer students enrolled in teacher preparation programs. This on top of Maryland being a net-importer of teachers, needing to recruit from other states to fill classrooms each year.
  • During the O’Malley years, the governor and legislature defunded the Geographic Cost of Education Index. To balance the pension fund, they also pushed off half of state contributions to local districts, coming directly out of school operating funds.
  • Governor Hogan failed to substantially increase state investments in public education in eight years beyond marginal increases to keep up with inflation.

In 2016, the Kirwan Commission convened experts, advocates, and policymakers to develop a plan to students for college and the workforce. As a result, the legislature passed recommendations from the Kirwan Commission through the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future after overturning the governor’s veto in 2021. Along with the Blueprint came a new independent state unit of government — the Accountability and Implementation Board — a high-profile board now standing alongside the state board of education. Structured as a “good to great” strategy, the Blueprint increased annual state education expenditures up to $3.8 billion by not increasing the base allocation to districts but instead allocating funds to priority areas such as early childhood education, teacher preparation, and college and career readiness.  Few strategies directly address learning and achievement in elementary and middle grades reading and mathematics.

Schools and communities have experienced a decade of turbulence with shifting leadership and priorities, new curricula and assessments, and stagnant funding. Now, there is some promise of improvement with the infusion of state funds through the Blueprint. Have we spent too much time in transition between initiatives? In seeking to improve schools, have we asked the right questions? What is the vision and direction of education priorities moving forward?

Since 2011, power has shifted in state education from the state board and superintendent to the legislature and advocates through numerous leadership transitions and the high-profile Kirwan Commission. In turn, accountability for public education has been obfuscated.

Between 2011 and 2019, Maryland students fell behind faster than peers across the nation. During the pandemic, Maryland students experienced more learning loss than most other students in the U.S. Maryland public schools have not only failed to improve but have fallen dramatically in the past decade. Who is to be held responsible for this dramatic and outsized decline in student learning?

Amidst this political prism in Maryland schools — the incoming governor, the legislature, State Board, state superintendent, AIB, local superintendents, local school boards, and the unions – who will take responsibility and ultimate accountability for improving outcomes in Maryland schools over the next decade?