When he took office in 2003, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pledged to apply innovative solutions to Maryland's long-standing problems. Nowhere was this more needed than in public education.
For decades, failing schools have plagued low-income communities, and achievement gaps have persisted throughout the state. But public education is famously resistant to change. School systems are run by enormous bureaucracies, and entrenched interests jealously guard the status quo.
To address these problems, the governor appointed an independent commission, which after a year of work, came up with 30 recommendations for modernizing the system to make student learning the top priority. Three of the commission's recommendations deserve special attention.
First, Maryland should change the way it recruits, trains and compensates teachers. Like many other states, Maryland has given universities a near monopoly on teacher preparation, although neither the quantity nor the quality of their graduates has met the state's needs. Once on the job, rigid union contracts require that teacher salaries be based on paper credentials and time in harness without regard to classroom effectiveness, the market for a teacher's particular skills or a teacher's willingness to work in tough schools. This system discourages people from entering the teaching field and contributes to a fast exit by many.
The commission urged Maryland to open new paths into teaching; to welcome sharp, dedicated adults of all stripes; and to compensate teachers in the same way that professionals in other fields are compensated. Teaching in a high-need school or content area and consistently boosting student learning should be compensated.
Second, Maryland should rewrite its charter school law. Special interests have stymied the emergence of charter schools in the state; Maryland was the 40th state to pass a charter school law, and it now has one of the nation's weakest laws regarding charter schools. As a result, it is missing out on a reform that is helping many children in other states.
Charter schools would have clear goals and the autonomy to reach those goals. They would be held accountable for their results and would survive only if they created a safe, rigorous environment and successfully prepared pupils for college and beyond.
Third, Maryland needs to develop a fair and reliable system of evaluating teachers, principals and schools. State tests gauge only a student's or a school's current performance, not year-to-year gains.
Since students bring their previous levels of learning -- good or bad -- with them to a new school, a highly effective school could be mistakenly labeled as failing or vice versa. Maryland needs an assessment system that measures the effect that individual educators and schools have on learning. The results would feed into a clear rating system that would recognize the performance of teachers, principals and schools, enabling the state to reward those who narrow achievement gaps and to acknowledge schools with superior results.
Great teachers and principals should be given more autonomy, better pay and the opportunity to serve in areas where they can make the most difference Those who are struggling could be provided with the assistance needed to improve. Most important, this information would help parents make the best decisions for their children.
Ehrlich's commission was bipartisan and diverse. Its recommendations were made outside the political process and focused on a single goal: a quality education for every child, regardless of race, income or geography.
It's up to the legislature, the state board of education and the state school superintendent to put the commission's recommendations into action.
-- Chester Finn
-- Andy Smarick
were members of the Governor's Commission on Quality Education. Finn is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports elementary and secondary education reform. Smarick is chief of staff for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.