As if new state schools superintendent Carey Wright doesn’t have more than enough Halloween hobgoblins to contend with, the scariest one has been overlooked in public understanding and political debate about the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future: How many students are actually expected to succeed by the time the Blueprint sunsets in 2032?
In other words, is the Blueprint likely to live up to its lofty promises? If not, the Blueprint should be revised asap or another generation of schoolchildren, predominantly poor and of color, will fail.
So, with a decade to go in the life of the Blueprint, what are reasonable expectations of student success?
Success is hard to predict but reasonable expectations mean more than high aspirations, sincere promises of best efforts, and wishful thinking. Rather, reasonable expectations require expert estimates — based on research to the extent possible — of the gains in student achievement that Blueprint programs and funding should be expected to bring about.
So far, such expert estimates have not been done. For one thing, they are hard to do. But the main reason for their absence is political fear that they will reveal an alarming number of students being left behind.
I offer no estimates but rather guidelines that policymakers must consider transparently. Accountability for the adequacy and equity of the Blueprint and evaluation of the performance of Dr. Wright are at stake.
The Kirwan Commission, which drafted the Blueprint, placed extraordinary priority on such accountability. The Blueprint Accountability and Implementation Board, the first of its kind in the nation, presides over an intricate accountability system. Still, it is struggling to set proper targets for student success, in part because of ambiguity in the Blueprint itself.
On the one hand, the Blueprint proclaims that the “goal [is] for each student” to meet high college and career readiness standards. “Each” student — that is, all students — would be expected to become academically proficient.
That was the goal when the Kirwan Commission convened in 2016. Its charge was to update the 2002 Bridge to Excellence Act that sought to carry out Maryland court decisions requiring “adequate” school funding. Adequacy was generally understood as funding to enable success for all students.
However, the Commission dropped the success-for-all goal, assuming that it would be impossible to attain. Weighing heavily on it was then Gov. Larry Hogan’s all-out opposition to the Blueprint.
Instead, the Blueprint’s stated purpose became to raise Maryland public schools to “levels of high-performing systems around the world.” But the exact meaning of this is elusive. Academic standards and the percentage of proficient students differ in high-performing countries.
To resolve the legislative ambiguity, the accountability board originally proposed that “nearly all” students would meet academic standards. However, advocates (including me) objected because of its lack of specificity about how many students, especially those most at risk of failure, would succeed. To wrestle with the problem, the board established an Outcome Measures Workgroup; yet, despite many months of hard work, overall expectations are still in limbo.
The Accountability and Implementation Board, however, has determined two commendable guideposts. Its Initial Comprehensive Implementation Plan sets expectations that “All students enter kindergarten ready to learn” and “All third-graders are reading on grade level by FY 2027.”
Given the importance of kindergarten readiness and early literacy, if these expectations for “all” are met, relatively few students would be left behind. The rub, however, is that these expectations are not supported by expert estimates.
No easy solutions loom. No state has ever attempted to set short- or long-term student expectations under reform plans like the Blueprint. The Maryland State Department of Education required local school systems to set achievement targets in reading and math for school year 2023-2024; but there were no criteria, and local projections were without rhyme or reason.
So where does the accountability board, in collaboration with the State Board of Education and Dr. Wright, go from here? Unfortunately, the Kirwan Commission largely bypassed a methodology to determine research-based estimates of the gains in student achievement that the Blueprint would produce. Now, it’s been about five years, including COVID-19, since the Blueprint was basically designed, and some cracks are showing.
Still, the accountability board can combine research-based estimates of key programs with a deep dig into the mountain of information — voluminous data and reports and findings of Expert Review teams — on the Blueprint experience to date.
An alternate approach is to measure student progress by comparing our students to students in other states via the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, and other countries via the Programme for International Student Assessment. National test score comparisons would be relatively reliable, whereas international comparisons are fraught with problems because of huge dissimilarities between school systems in the U.S. and other countries.
But even the NAEP comparison begs the question of whether the Blueprint still leaves too many students behind. For example, in the 2022 results, on fourth grade reading, 31% of Maryland students were proficient. Massachusetts led with 43%. Mississippi, where Dr. Wright was superintendent until 2022, was at 34%.
Would raising the Maryland percentage from say 31% to 45% or 50% achieve enough adequacy and equity to live up to the promises of the Blueprint — with at least a glance in the direction of the state constitutional mandate that all students should be enabled to meet state standards?
The accountability board’s duty is extremely difficult but it has a powerful tool at its disposal. After setting reasonable expectations, it must recommend, as need be, legislative revisions including additional resources that would raise expectations and student achievement.
Bottom line: Without reasonable expectations that live up to the promises of the Blueprint, accountability is severely flawed. And come 2032, large and inequitable percentages of students will still be left behind. That should really frighten us all.