William E. Kirwan is chair of Maryland’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, known as the Kirwan Commission, and former chancellor of the University System of Maryland.
About two years ago, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and the General Assembly created the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, asking it to develop recommendations to make Maryland schools among the best-performing in the world. They recognized that to be a leader in the highly competitive global economy, Maryland must have an education system that equips its graduates with the knowledge and skills necessary to sustain a thriving state economy and ensure broadly shared prosperity across the state.
The commission had to confront harsh realities about the current status of our schools. Many on the commission assumed that since Maryland had been ranked among the best school systems in the nation by a major publication for several years running, its students must be achieving at high levels compared with other students in the United States and even in the world. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Student achievement is mediocre overall in Maryland. For example, it is in the middle of the pack in multiple grades and subjects, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures student achievement in all 50 states. And the United States is in the middle of the pack among 72 developed and developing countries around the world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the Program for International Student Assessment exam.
Even the best students in the United States underperform the best students in many other countries. What’s more, fewer than 40 percent of Maryland’s high school graduates are deemed college- and career-ready by the state’s own measures. Further, Maryland has unacceptably large achievement gaps based on race, income and ethnicity, among others, and is widely perceived to provide less funding for students living in poverty than for wealthier students.
These troubling realities are by no means restricted to specific jurisdictions. There are underperforming schools and underserved students in each of Maryland’s 24 school districts.
We can and must do better. The commission’s rigorous study of high-performing systems in the United States and abroad, with support from the National Center on Education and the Economy, enabled it to understand the impact of these high performers’ policies and practices and how they could be adapted to our state’s unique challenges and context.
Based on this analysis, the commission developed recommendations in five major policy areas to create this systemwide transformation: (1) a significant expansion of full-day preschool, free for all low-income 3- and 4-year-olds, so that all children have the opportunity to begin kindergarten ready to learn; (2) elevating the standards and status of the teaching profession, including a performance-based career ladder and compensation levels comparable to other professions with similar education requirements; (3) an internationally benchmarked curriculum that enables most students to achieve “college and career ready” status by the 10th grade and then pursue options, including early college, Advanced Placement courses or rigorous technical education curriculums leading to industry-certified credentials and high-paying jobs; (4) more resources for students who need it most, including targeted new support for schools serving high concentrations of poverty, with after-school and summer academic programs and access to needed health and social services; and (5) an independent oversight board that has the fiscal authority to ensure the commission’s recommendations are faithfully implemented and produce the desired results.
Changes of the magnitude proposed by the commission require substantial time and effort. The commission has developed a 10-year implementation plan and determined its costs. While the costs are significant, for one of the wealthiest states in the nation, they are within our reach. It is simply a question of priorities. The plan calls for a statewide annual increase in funding of less than 3 percent over current projected expenditures for the next 10 years. But the cost of not moving Maryland from its present mediocre status in education to a world-class pre-K-12 education system would ultimately prove much greater in diminished prospects and opportunities for the state and its citizens.
The one remaining piece of work to do is determining the distribution of the costs between the state and local jurisdictions. The leaders of the General Assembly have asked the commission to continue its work and make distribution recommendations this year. Meanwhile, there is much that can be accomplished in the 2019 legislative session. The state has wisely set aside up to $325 million that can be allocated in the upcoming session to “jump-start” the commission’s recommendations. The legislature also can endorse the commission’s policy recommendations and set aside funding for fiscal 2021, the first year of the commission’s 10-year plan, which would send a strong signal of support to our students, teachers and schools.
With the commission’s recommendations, Maryland has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set a bold course and create a bright future for the state and its citizens. The question remains: Does it have the will, discipline and persistence required to make it happen? We think it must because nothing less than the future well-being of the state and its children hangs in the balance.