Delaware’s education secretary, a leader with local roots and a national reputation, was named Friday the next superintendent of Maryland public schools.
Lillian M. Lowery, 57, is a former teacher and administrator in Fairfax County schools who is known for a focus on lifting expectations for students from all backgrounds. As the schools chief in Delaware, starting in 2009, she oversaw an application that made the tiny state one of the first to win a highly competitive federal Race to the Top grant.
“She is the best person in the country we could have gotten for this job,” said James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr., president of the Maryland State Board of Education.
Her work on Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature schools reform effort, “speaks volumes about her forward view of education policy and where it needs to go,” DeGraffenreidt said. It also shows, he said, that “she has a track record for having to work out some of the thorny issues that we are working out in Maryland.”
Lowery is replacing Interim State Superintendent of Schools Bernard J. Sadusky. He had succeeded Nancy S. Grasmick, who retired last summer after two decades as superintendent.
Lowery’s appointment, with a salary of $210,000, puts her at the helm of one of the nation’s highest-profile school systems. For four straight years, Education Week has named Maryland the best in the country for K-12 education policies and performance. But the state faces significant challenges, particularly in closing gaps in achievement between rich and poor students and districts.
Lowery, who begins her new job July 1, is arriving at a turbulent time. The state is implementing new national standards in math and English language arts and sweeping policy changes required by its own Race to the Top award, including a controversial teacher evaluation system that will tie teacher success more closely to student achievement.
In a statement, Lowery said she was excited to join an “outstanding educational system” and committed to the state’s goals.
“The success of the state of Maryland’s public education transformation agenda, just as the national agenda, is an economic must and the means to future success for our youngest citizens,” she said.
With 130,000 students in three counties, Delaware’s public school enrollment is smaller than Montgomery County’s. In her new job, Lowery will oversee 24 county and city school systems.
Grasmick’s push for a Race to the Top grant put her in conflict with some local superintendents and many teachers. Montgomery and Frederick counties declined to join the state’s application, and only two of 24 local teachers unions signed on.
Building consensus through the rollout of the changes will be a key challenge for Lowery. But present and past colleagues say collaboration is one of her strengths.
Frederika Jenner, president of the Delaware Education Association, described Lowery’s relationship with the teachers union as “incredibly close.”
Delaware’s Race to the Top application got high marks for including support from the union.
Delaware teachers and state officials have been hashing out details of the revised teacher evaluations. In the fall, they debated what kind of data should be used to evaluate teachers who do not work in the core subjects of reading and math, which have standardized tests. The result was a compromise that “we all saw as fair and valid,” Jenner said.
Former colleagues in Fairfax describe Lowery as a supportive leader who kept practical classroom needs in view as she climbed the administrative ranks.
Lowery spent about 15 years in Fairfax schools, starting in 1988 as an English teacher at Madison High School. She was later an assistant principal, principal and assistant superintendent, a post in which she oversaw more than two dozen schools. In 2006, she became superintendent of Christina Public Schools, Delaware’s largest school system, before rising to the state’s top job.
As a principal at Fairfax High School, Lowery pushed hard to get more students enrolled in college-level classes, former colleagues said. As an assistant superintendent, she was credited for recruiting talented people and nurturing them.
“She is the complete package: a good listener, a great communicator. I would say that she is completely dedicated to public education and helping kids succeed,” said Janice Miller, a longtime member of the Fairfax City School Board.