This past Sunday’s edition of the Des Moines Register featured a detailed article about Maryland schools surpassing Iowa schools based because of reforms enacted over the last decade. A major centerpiece of these reforms was an accountability system that “put schools on notice” by requiring students to be proficient in essential school subjects.
How Maryland overhauled schools while Iowa fell back
Principal: Maryland sets ‘very clear expectations’ for faculty, students. ‘There’s no room for excuses.’
By Mary Stegmeir
BALTIMORE — It’s 8:45 a.m. — just after the morning bell — and the youngsters in Noelle Hickok’s Liberty Elementary School class are hard at work.
The 4- and 5-year-olds take turns reciting alphabet letters and their phonetic pronunciations as Hickok nods approvingly.
“Perfect. My friends are ready to read,” she says.
The claim would have seemed unlikely just two decades ago.
At that time, Iowa students led the nation in reading proficiency. Maryland children performed below the national average, and students from inner-city Baltimore schools, like Liberty, posted abysmal scores on state tests.
Today, the tables have turned. After more than 20 years of statewide education reform, elementary and middle school students in Maryland outperform their Iowa counterparts in reading and math.
“Iowa is one of the sad stories of the nation,” said Eric Hanushek, an education researcher at Stanford University in California. “Your state had a long tradition of paying attention to schools. It was out in front. Then it sort of all just slipped away.”
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has pushed for wide-ranging K-12 education reforms to reverse the slide. But as the General Assembly heads toward likely adjournment this week, legislation remains stalled.
Iowa Education Director Jason Glass and other reform supporters point to Maryland as a possible model for how Iowa can overhaul its system to boost student achievement.
“They put the right reforms in place, stuck with them and then worked to continually improve, never being satisfied with the results,” said Linda Fandel, a Branstad education adviser.
Iowa has tried education reforms in fits and starts over the past two decades. Policymakers tinkered with teacher pay, funneled money into professional development and lowered class sizes. The moves have largely failed to improve student test scores, education leaders acknowledge today.
“They weren’t systemic (changes),” Glass said. “As soon as the political will or the money ran out, those programs vanished.”
From 1992 to 2011, Maryland recorded the fastest rate of improvement in math, reading and science when compared with 40 other states in a Harvard University report published in July. The study included states that have participated in a set of rigorous national tests since 1992.
Iowa finished last.
The policies governing school performance in each state can help explain the results, said Hanushek, one of the study’s authors.
“Iowa has long resisted accountability,” Hanushek said. “There’s been an attempt in recent years to make some changes that are productive, but over the long run, Iowa’s been slow to make any changes in its schools.”
Maryland’s requirements ‘put schools on notice’
Maryland was one of the first states in the country to demand better performance from teachers and students, adopting a law in 1972 that required students to demonstrate minimal proficiency in math, reading and writing to graduate from high school.
Statewide assessments were rolled out in 1993, and results of each school were reported to the public. Iowa wouldn’t follow suit until 2002-03, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act required all states to measure student performance in math and reading.
By that time, Maryland had closely monitored performance of its schools for nearly a decade. In 2000 and again in 2006, the state took over a handful of consistently low-performing schools — something Iowa has never done.
“We put schools on notice,” said Nancy Grasmick, Maryland’s state superintendent from 1991 to 2011. “We stopped letting children be the victims of underperforming schools, period.”
Later legislation linked student progress to increased funding and spending flexibility. By 2007, Maryland students were required to pass exams in English, algebra, biology and civics to graduate, an idea Iowa lawmakers explored last year but ultimately dismissed.
“There are very clear expectations for teachers and for students and for principals,” said Jason McCoy, who leads Cradlerock Elementary School in Columbia, Md. “The focus is always on improving. There’s no room for excuses.”
Teachers’ union challenges accountability reforms
Maryland’s climb to the top was not without its challenges.
Although reform initiatives have enjoyed largely bipartisan support, state leaders at times confronted political impasses similar to the ones tying up Iowa lawmakers this session.
The Baltimore teachers’ union challenged the state’s ability to restructure struggling schools — a case that made its way to Maryland’s highest court, where the practice was ruled legal. Exit exams for high school students also were initially a tough sell to both parents and lawmakers.
Yet Maryland’s multiyear school improvement plan has continued to receive support and increased funding over the past decade under both Democratic and Republican leadership.
“As a people, we made the decision that education was the most important economic development investment we could make,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who served as mayor of Baltimore from 1999 to 2007.
Early successes paved the way for continued state funding, he said.
At the local level, many school leaders received autonomy over their budgets, staffing and schedules. Their only objective: Raise achievement for all students.
McCoy, the Cradlerock principal, used that authority last year to rearrange his school’s schedule after 2010-11 test scores indicated students weren’t meeting state goals for growth in reading or math.
“We were bleeding red,” he said.
Physical education and music teachers at the suburban school now take responsibility for early morning duties, such as supervising the school cafeteria. That has allowed teachers in core academic areas an hour to collaborate, planning math, reading and science lessons.
Today, dry-erase boards in the school’s “war room” chart the progress of Cradlerock’s 499 students. A watch list tracks children receiving extra instruction in math or reading.
In 2011-12, Cradlerock students posted double-digit test score gains in both subjects.
Forty percent of Cradlerock students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, matching Iowa’s statewide rate. Iowa’s stagnating test scores over the past 20 years have coincided with increases in child poverty.
“If you look at best practices for (working with) kids in poverty, it’s just good teaching. It’s meeting kids where they need to be met,” said teacher Connie Conroy. “It’s a shift in how you think about what you’re doing.”
Former official: No school satisfied with status quo
In Maryland, even top-performing schools file an annual improvement plan with the state, former state superintendent Grasmick said.
“There is no system in Maryland where they don’t understand what needs to be happening, and where they are not ratcheting up efforts to achieve it,” she said. “No one wants to stand still. Everyone wants to push forward.”
Fandel said Maryland’s 20-year turnaround includes “a lot of lessons” for Iowa.
“Maryland is ahead of Iowa in every aspect of education reform,” she said.
Hanushek and others point to Maryland’s accountability as the lynchpin of its success. But Fandel said concurrent reforms that aligned the state’s curriculum, assessments and teaching standards were also key.
Iowa policymakers are just now beginning to develop a voluntary statewide curriculum, redesign student tests and improve measures of teachers — showing just how far Iowa has to go before it can reclaim its crown as an education leader, Fandel said.
Whether you agree with all the methods Maryland has used to improve its schools, Gov. O’Malley said, it’s hard to argue with the results.
Iowa and Maryland serve similar percentages of students who live in poverty and who are learning English as a second language.
“Public education in America doesn’t have to be one of those things where you throw your hands up and say: ‘This is way too complex to deal with’,” O’Malley said. “Yes, it’s hard and it’s not cheap; but it can be done.”
After decades of work, Maryland’s schools are enjoying accolades.
Education Week, the nation’s education newspaper of record, has ranked Maryland as the top provider of K-12 education in the U.S. for each of the past five years.
The state’s focus on college-readiness, in particular, has drawn national interest.
Nearly 28 percent of all Maryland seniors in the class of 2011 passed an Advanced Placement exam, showing mastery of college-level work. Only 9.7 percent of Iowa seniors achieved the same feat.
Maryland’s leaders acknowledge there’s plenty of work left to do. Large achievement gaps remain. Yet scores for all student groups have improved since the state began holding schools responsible for student scores.
From racial minorities to children living in poverty, all but one of Maryland’s student groups matched or outscored their Iowa counterparts on national math and reading tests. The only exception occurred on the eighth-grade math test, where low-income Iowa students performed better than their Maryland peers.
And unlike Iowa, Maryland has extra money to spend on reducing gaps between students. It won $250 million in federal funding awarded to states addressing issues such as improved teacher effectiveness. Iowa got shut out.
Maryland’s latest wave of school reform efforts focuses, in part, on reducing disparities between student groups and turning around struggling schools.
Maryland has pledged to cut in half the number of students scoring below grade level by 2017. Early results are positive.
Some of the highest-scoring schools in 2012 served populations where more than three-quarters of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
“Kids are capable of overcoming all sorts of barriers, if we’re willing to support them,” O’Malley said. “Maryland’s story shows that if you make better choices, you get better results.”
Gaps between poor students and their peers, for example, triggered a statewide mandate in 2002 that schools provide preschool instruction for children from low-income families.
Hickok and her colleagues at Baltimore’s Liberty Elementary School see the program’s value every day.
In 2003, 34.2 percent of the school’s third-graders read at grade level. Last year, 87.5 percent of third-graders passed the state reading exam.
After reciting their ABCs on a recent morning, Hickok’s preschool students moved on to more sophisticated fare — combining sounds to make words like “cat,” “hen” and “pen.”
With a little coaching, the children then wrote simple sentences.
“Look at you; you’re so smart,” enthused Hickok, earning smiles from her young charges. “You’re ready to go.”