Anne Arundel School Superintendent Eric J. Smith is about to complete his third year on the job, an important milestone in a field where conventional wisdom dictates that superintendents need three years to start making a difference.
On the eve of that anniversary, the school system has released survey results that suggest Smith can claim a popular mandate from every constituency he serves.
The survey, released May 31, shows that a majority of parents, teachers and central-office employees who responded are satisfied both with the school system and with Smith himself.
Seventy-four percent of school-based employees rated Smith as satisfactory or better. His approval rating was higher among the central-office staff (87 percent) and lower among parents (53 percent).
The new survey shows a substantial increase in Smith's numbers since December 2003, when the school system first surveyed its constituents about the superintendent and his programs. It may go a long way toward dispelling a fairly widespread notion among teachers and parent leaders that Smith is unpopular.
In the earlier survey, 62 percent of school staff members who responded rated Smith satisfactory or better, 77 percent of central office staff members were satisfied with him and his support among parents was at 47 percent.
"Overall, I'd say we're happy with the way things are going," said Debbie Ritchie, countywide PTA president. "There are some things that need to be ironed out and that need to be worked on. But do I think children are learning and people are moving ahead and we're closing the achievement gap? Yeah, I do."
Smith's approval rating is rising at an opportune time for him. The teachers association is conducting its own survey of the superintendent, motivated by a conviction that most teachers are unhappy with him. If the teacher survey shows that a majority disapprove of Smith, the union plans to hold a vote to assess the confidence that teachers have in the superintendent.
The superintendent and his top deputies are concerned about the union survey and the prospect of a confidence vote, which would send a bad message to parents and school board members just as Smith is nearing completion of his four-year contract.
The school board's survey was funded by the 21st Century Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization created to advocate for Anne Arundel schools.
The survey was conducted in April by Shugoll Research, an independent Bethesda firm. Shugoll also took the 2003 survey.
Shugoll sent out 46,394 surveys, targeting students and parents in the fifth, seventh and 11th grades and all employees. Only 38 percent of parents and 55 percent of the schools staff responded to the survey, inviting the inevitable questions of whether the group that chose to answer the survey was biased in any way.
Sheila Finlayson, president of the teachers association, said the approval figures cited by the school system "are misleading, because it gives the impression that it is a percentage of the entire population."
The goal of the survey was not to rate the superintendent but rather to gather data on a broad range of satisfaction measures across the range of academics, said Bob Leib, chief of staff under Smith.
"The survey's designed to help us get measurements: Are we doing what we need to do to make the progress we're supposed to make?" Leib said. "The reason we included the questions about the [school] board and the superintendent is that no one would say we gave him a free ride."
Teachers and other employees were asked to choose one of three ratings for Smith: "excellent/very good," "satisfactory" or "below average/poor." Forty-nine percent of the central-office staff rated Smith in the top category in the April survey, while 38 percent judged him "satisfactory" and 13 percent "below average." In the schools, the largest share of employees, 46 percent, rated Smith satisfactory, while almost equal shares rated him above average (28 percent) or below (26 percent).
Parents were offered a slightly different choice: They could say they were "satisfied" with Smith, "not satisfied" or "neither." In the 2003 survey, 47 percent of parents said they were satisfied with Smith and 23 percent said they were dissatisfied; the rest were undecided. In the new survey, 53 percent of parents said they were satisfied, and 19 percent said they were not satisfied.
The 2003 survey, the first of its kind in Anne Arundel, came shortly after Smith introduced a series of academic changes that drew widespread criticism from teachers. He put middle and high schools on block scheduling, which doubled the length of class periods, and he put teachers on lockstep pacing guides that restricted their ability to customize their lessons.
Before Smith intervened, "my school was using one textbook and teaching the curriculum in one specific way, and the next school was using a different curriculum and teaching things in the opposite way," Ritchie said.
Responses to that 2003 survey were most negative at the high school level: 45 percent of high school staff members responding rated the superintendent below average, and a large share expressed concern over the reading and math curriculums.
The new survey comes after teachers and parents have seen some encouraging results. Advanced Placement coursework has doubled in the system under Smith's tenure, meaning that many more students are performing college-level work in high school. Smith is expanding the gifted program -- always in high demand among demanding parents -- into every elementary school. Standardized test scores are rising.
Parents reported themselves largely satisfied with both the school system and their individual school: Satisfaction levels in both exceed 80 percent in the April survey.
Employees seem happier, on the whole, to be working for Anne Arundel schools. In the new survey, 86 percent of school-based staff members said they were satisfied to be working for the school system, compared with 73 percent in 2003.
Smith's emphasis on challenging coursework seems to be paying off: The share of parents who believe their student is encouraged to take demanding courses leapt from 64 percent in the first survey to 76 percent in the second, and the share of students who feel the same way rose from 56 percent to 69 percent.
There is more acceptance of Smith's curriculum among teachers: In the new survey, 58 percent of school-based staff members agreed that the reading and writing curriculum meets students' needs, up from 46 percent in 2003.
The only substantial bad news in the survey concerns students' safety, or at least their perceptions of safety. The share of students reporting that they feel safe at school declined in the new survey: from 88 percent to 80 percent in middle school, and from 82 percent to 74 percent in high school.
Students answering the new survey also were more likely to report racial tensions, drug use and fights at school. Among elementary students, for example, 75 percent reported that fighting is a problem, compared with 64 percent in the earlier survey.