In between unpacking boxes and mugging for her state photo ID badge, Lillian M. Lowery spent her first week as Maryland superintendent of schools in back-to-back briefings about a long list of reforms that are transforming public education across the state.
The former Delaware schools chief learned about the status of new national learning standards, the development of controversial new teacher evaluations and a changing accountability system that the U.S. Education Department approved in May.
By Friday, she was in the car, beginning a tour of the state’s 24 school districts with a stop in Baltimore County.
By the end of her four-year contract, or her tenure, she hopes to make the nationally renowned school system one of the best in the world.
Maryland public education is “really, really, really good. I would love to make it great,” Lowery said in an interview Thursday morning. “I want to make it the Finland of the United States,” she said, referring to one of the world’s most-respected educational systems.
Lowery’s arrival in Baltimore marks a new era in Maryland after two decades of leadership under Nancy S. Grasmick, who retired last summer. Bernard J. Sadusky served as an interim superintendent for the past year. Grasmick was renowned and sometimes reviled for elevating the role of standardized tests. She instituted a series of high school exams that graduates were required to pass and oversaw the battery of testing inspired by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Lowery, 57, said she admired her predecessor’s successes in other areas. As education secretary in Delaware, she visited Baltimore twice — to learn about Maryland’s centralized early education services and the high participation rate in Advanced Placement classes.
In Delaware, Lowery made her mark by shepherding through one of the first successful applicationsfor a competitive Race to the Top grant, the Obama administration’s chief lever of school improvement. Maryland received its own grant several months later.
Maryland education officials have highlighted her experience negotiating the sometimes-sensitive terms of the federal grant as a key asset, as she now assumes the responsibility of implementing the related policy changes.
“There is a lot of philosophical agreement between Maryland and Delaware” when it comes to education reform, said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. That is helping her “hit the ground running.”
Lowery, who will earn $210,000 annually, set some additional goals with the Board of Education to guide her work.
She wants to increase the statewide on-time graduation rate from 83 percent to at least 88 percent. And she intends to boost the portion of students who score 3 or higher on Advanced Placement tests.
Forty-six percent of high school graduates in Maryland take at least one Advanced Placement test, and 30 percent score 3 or higher — the highest participation and performance rates in the nation. Still, Lowery said she wants more students to transition to college with credits “under their belt.”
She plans to bring some new urgency to addressing academic achievement gaps.
Maryland in 2011 had the second largest disparity in the country between low-income students and their wealthier classmates on the eighth-grade math test known as the National Assessment for Educational Progress.
Lowery said she also intends to expand virtual learning opportunities across the state, a priority of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).
Implementing the new teacher evaluations, though, will be among her greatest challenges. Only two out of 24 unions in Maryland signed on to the initial federal grant application, largely because of concerns about teacher evaluations, which now must be tied to student performance data.
Each district will pilot a new evaluation system this year, but the details of how to measure a teacher’s progress remain under debate.
Lowery said cultivating a strong relationship with teachers will be critical to the success of the new plan.
Before her first day on the job, she met with statewide union leaders in the interim superintendent’s office and told them she hoped to set up regular talks through monthly meetings.
Betty Weller, president-elect of the Maryland State Education Association, said she was “delighted” by the invitation. “It’s a new day, and we have a lot of work to do together,” she said.