Maryland Showdown on Testing, Charters, and the Direction of Public Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 29, 2017.

Politicians and policy experts have long debated how and whether to hold schools accountable for what students learn. For 13 years under the controversial Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the federal government required states to identify schools that were failing by the metric of standardized test scores, and dictated how schools should intervene. Critics said the law amounted to untenable and unacceptable levels of federal overreach, and ultimately did little to close academic achievement gaps. Defenders say the law, while imperfect, led to small yet significant gains in student achievement, particularly for black, Hispanic, and low-income children.

At the end of 2015, Congress passed NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which limits the federal government’s role in shaping school accountability, and gives states considerably more discretion to craft their own plans. In order to receive federal funds, however, each state has to submit its plan for federal approval. These plans are due this coming fall, and the law is supposed to take full effect during the 2017-2018 school year.

A heated battle over the future of Maryland’s plan—specifically, how much weight standardized test scores should be given in determining a school’s rating, and how much power the state should have over low-performing schools—has become a flashpoint in the polarized education reform wars, not only within Maryland but across the country. At the crux of the debate are questions about who gets to speak on behalf of racial minorities and low-income children, and what school accountability should look like in the age of Donald Trump.

Last fall, the Maryland Board of Education—a 12-member body, ten of whom were appointed by the state’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan—released an initial draft accountability plan. The plan did not include details about what specific interventions should be taken if schools are deemed low-performing, but the board’s president, Andy Smarick, a former George W. Bush education official and a current resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Baltimore Sunthat he favored “bolder” approaches than Maryland has taken in the past. In February, Governor Hogan sent Smarick and Maryland’s state superintendent of schools a letter encouraging them to include private school vouchers, charter schools, and a state-run “recovery” school district as specific interventions in Maryland’s ESSA plan. Under current Maryland law, the state education department submits the plan to the state education board, which has the final authority to approve, amend, or reject it before sending it on to the federal government.

In response, Maryland’s Democratic-controlled legislature has been working with teachers unions and education advocates on legislation that would shape the direction of the state’s accountability plan, effectively limiting how much Hogan’s appointees could decide on their own.

States have a lot more freedom under ESSA than they did before, but they don’t have total freedom. ESSA dictates that when crafting accountability plans, states must assign indicators of academic performance “much greater weight” than other measures like class size and school climate. But what this language means in practice isn’t so clear. Education reformers say it means that a significant majority of a school’s accountability rating should hinge on standardized test scores—at least 70 percent. Last week, for example, the D.C. State Board of Education approved a plan that would make 70 percent of D.C.’s school accountability rating based on student growth and proficiency scores. (D.C. reformers originally pushed for testing measures to comprise 80 percent of a school’s score, but that percentage dropped amidst criticism.)

In mid-March Maryland’s House passed a union-backed bill—“The Protect Our Schools Act”—that would cap standardized testing measures at 65 percent of a school’s accountability score. Thirty-five percent would be reserved for indicators like class size, absenteeism, and school climate. The bill also would prevent the state from using vouchers and charters as school turnaround interventions, bar the creation of a state-run school district, and require districts and the state to negotiate any school improvement plan with the local teachers union. It passed 91-46, with a veto-proof majority.

Last week, as the state senate prepared to vote on the bill, Governor Hogan called it “misguided and horrible” and vowed to veto it should it land on his desk. In a press conference, the governor claimed the bill “will make it nearly impossible for [Maryland] to save some of these persistently failing schools.”

Maryland’s state board of education also expressed strong opposition to the bill. Chester E. Finn, Jr., the vice president of Maryland’s school board and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, called the passage of the Protect Our Schools Act “painful.”

Market-driven education reform organizations also moved into high gear to defeat the bill. MarylandCAN, a reform advocacy group, released a statement saying the bill “hurts children.” The head of Maryland’s Alliance of Public Charter Schools said it would be “most damaging for students within Maryland’s minority and low-income populations who need every opportunity available to them to lower the achievement gap—not being held to lower sub-par standards.”

The bill’s supporters rallied to its defense. On Monday, the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) put out a statement that said, “while the Protect Our Schools Act is supported by teachers, the Maryland PTA, civil rights groups—including the ACLU of Maryland and CASA de Maryland—and leading education scholars, it is only opposed by national school privatization advocates and Governor Hogan’s administration.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor and the president of the Learning Policy Institute, sent a letter to the Maryland state Senate last week to voice her support for the bill. “While academic outcome indicators are important, it is equally important to include indicators of student and school conditions that predict outcomes, so that educators have information to use for diagnostic purposes and improvement decisions,” she wrote. “By including school quality indicators [such as access to effective teachers and college-ready coursework] and using them in meaningful ways, parents, educators, and education stakeholders can have a richer understanding of what is going on in a school and what is fostering or delaying its success.”

Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA’s graduate school of education, also sent a letter to the senate expressing support for the bill, saying he felt it would provide Maryland with “the strong accountability system that it needs and enable it to be positioned to monitor school and student performance, and draw attention to inequities in learning opportunities that research has shown obstruct effort to close achievement gaps.”

Education reform groups opposed to the bill argue that it will have the opposite effect, actually obfuscating information about achievement gaps and inequities.

On Tuesday morning, the Maryland Senate passed the Protect Our Schools Act with a final vote of 32-15. The House concurred Tuesday night, also with a veto-proof margin, and it now heads to Larry Hogan.

Teacher unions and other education advocates who favor the bill have been stressing that the Protect Our Schools Act serves as a preemptive measure against school privatization, particularly since Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, both advocates of charters and vouchers, now guide federal policy. The MSEA also claims that Hogan has ignored their efforts to collaborate on school improvement.

“Since the day after his election, we’ve reached out to the governor repeatedly to try and put partisanship aside and work with him on reducing over-testing and other education issues,” says MSEA’s communication director, Adam Mendelson. “We’re still waiting on him to return our calls and include public educators’ voices in his policy development.”

How far Hogan will go in fighting the Democratic-controlled legislature over school reform remains an open question. Despite his statewide popularity, the Republican governor is expected to face a tough reelection battle in 2018, and Maryland voters express strong support for public education.

The Washington Post recently found that 41 percent of registered voters said they’d support Hogan for a second term, down from 46 percent in September. Maryland went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election by 26 points.


One thought on “Maryland Showdown on Testing, Charters, and the Direction of Public Schools

  1. Hi Rachel, No reply necessary Good reporting and analysis on another tough issue. I really can’t comment on the specifics of the school system in Maryland as it is beyond me. But as you know, I believe the future of every country largely rests on the quality of its education. In other words it is in the best interest of all states to ensure they have the best possible education system, and one competitive with the best international standards, meaning that the state had best take ownership of the issue. The existence of private schools is an acknowledgement that the state school system is failing.

    I’m all for appraisal of school and teacher performance. Why not? Elsewhere in the working world people get ahead or get dropped based on their performance. Life is competitive and performance matters. And what’s more important than the future of the children?

    Standardized tests get a bad rap. This need not be so if schools ran on a standardized curriculum, with teachers equally well qualified and subject to regular upgrading, and schools receiving ‘standardized funding’. Teacher unions squawk about testing and requalification because they see their role being to protect their members. Who is there to protect the quality of the teaching? Most other professionals know it is imperative to be constantly upgrading their knowledge and skills. Why not teachers? The majority of teachers are fully committed and do a good job under difficult circumstances. Teaching is a challenge. It is not an easy job. It should be recognized as such. Finland has an excellent education system, the result of which (this is a chicken and egg thing!) there is a lot of competition to become a teacher; teachers are well paid; and teachers are highly respected members of the community – up their with doctors and lawyers. It seems to me that this is something of a model worth emulating. America would benefit from better paid, better trained, and more respected teachers. I remember being in Singapore in the late 1970s. Singapore is tiny, only about four times the size of Washington DC, and thus easy to manage. At that time it was managed by Lee Kwan Yew, who ran the country for about three decades, dragging it into the modern world after the split with Malaysia in the mid 1960s. Lee set about making Singapore one of the world’s most prosperous countries. It wasn’t a pretty process. It was was heavily dictatorial – I remember strict anti-litter laws, and rules against long hair, gun chewing, and so on. But the place was clean, green, safe, and functional. Lee was what you might call an enlightened despot. Anyway, he recognized the importance of education to his country’s future. I remember reading about school and teacher ratings; new to me at the time. But look where Singapore is today, and look where it stands in education: #1 in science, #1 in reading and #1 in math. Singapore now has the 5th highest GDP per capita in the world. (US ranks #18; Canada #32) Not bad for a tiny island nation with no natural resources. Proof of what can be achieved with vision and a commitment to education. Book a ticket to Singapore for Betsy!

    In fairness, the Singapore model is not for everyone as it is ultra-competitive: the dreaded Tiger moms, child suicide etc. It is a cultural thing that doesn’t fit well in North American, although many an Asian immigrant family brings with it this aggressive attitude towards education. It does get results, although many non-Asians don’t approve of the methods used.

    I don’t know about you, but I enjoyed my school days. We had a lot of fun. Times have changed, but kids should still have fun.

    Keep up the good work!

    Ciao! Robin


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