A Student of School Reform on the Maryland State Board of Education

By 05/18/2015

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Last Friday, I was sworn in as a member of the Maryland State Board of Education.

It’s an honor to have this chance to serve. It also has great personal meaning to me. I’m a product of Maryland public education from start to finish: from Broadneck Elementary through Magothy River Middle and Severn River Junior High, then Broadneck High, and into the University of Maryland, I’ve attended only Maryland public schools since I was six years old. Now my oldest—a soon-to-be five-year old who loves math problems, puzzles, his scooter, and Spider-Man—begins kindergarten this fall in our local Maryland public school.

Before he administered my oath, the court clerk reminded me how personally we all take our schools. He talked about the high school just down the road—the same high school he attended decades earlier, the high school where he met some of the people in the photos hanging on his office walls.

During my drive to the courthouse, I passed a number of working farms in my rural county. I remembered my elementary school’s annual tradition of watching Maryland: America in Miniature. I learned that the Old Line State had a thriving agricultural community on the Lower Shore; mountains and lakes in the Appalachian west; tourism and scenic views of the ocean on the Atlantic east; bustling cities in its center, jobs and recreation on the Chesapeake Bay…

Now, I see all of the nation’s major K–12 issues playing out inside Maryland’s borders. It has high-performing schools that probably didn’t get the credit they deserved during the NCLB era. It has rural communities whose needs aren’t always addressed by major federal and statewide initiatives. It has low-income urban areas facing myriad challenges and whose families don’t have adequate access to great schools. It has historically high-income areas seeing an influx of low-income students and historically racially homogenous areas becoming increasingly diverse.

Importantly, Maryland has six of the nation’s fifty largest school districts. But it also has some with just a few thousand students.

Maryland is entering its post-Race to the Top era while implementing a new ESEA waiver. It’s building new educator evaluation systems while implementing Common Core and PARCC. It’s re-examining funding levels, early childhood initiatives, ELL programming, and much more.

Research suggests that Maryland’s schools have made terrific progress over the last decade-plus. By some measures, it’s among the highest-performing states. But things are by no means perfect, especially in the highest-poverty areas. I suspect one of the toughest parts of this job will be projecting a sense of urgency about necessary reforms while heralding the very good things taking place.

I’m beginning with a few goals in mind. I’d like Maryland to develop a sophisticated, nuanced accountability system that reflects the complexity of schooling, the wide contributions of teachers, and the priorities of families and communities. I’d like the state to have the best system of standards and assessments and the best policies for educator preparation, evaluation, tenure, and compensation. I hope the state can expand families’ access to great schools of choice by, among other things, dramatically improving its charter school law. I’d like the state to make room for more innovation without impetuously chasing faddish approaches. I desperately want to help Baltimore.

But I also come to this position with a great deal of humility. This will be my sixth government role related to education policy. I’ve been a legislative aide to members of the Maryland General Assembly and a member of Congress. I worked at the White House and served as a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and deputy commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education. Those roles taught me that targeted federal programs and smart state policies can have huge benefits for kids (especially the most disadvantaged) and that state governments are ultimately responsible for ensuring that all students receive a high-quality education.

But I’ve also learned that centrally created and administered technocratic solutions seldom generate the results their designers envision. They can also have unfortunate unintended consequences and stir up resentment. I’ve come to believe that “local control,” embodied by a sense of deference to families, neighborhoods, and educators, respects the intricacies of public schooling, the particular histories of communities, and the wisdom of time-tested practices.

I care deeply about this work and have strong opinions on lots of issues. But I’m also eager to learn from the state’s educators, Superintendent Lowery and her team, the other board members, state and local leaders, and the kids and families our schools serve.

I’m enormously appreciative that Governor Hogan has granted me this opportunity to give back to the system that has meant so much to me. I hope to do him and Maryland’s schools proud.

– Andy Smarick

This first appeared on Flypaper

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