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The Maryland Lesson

Hawaii’s public schools clearly need to improve. We take a look at the No. 1 public education system in the nation, to see what success looks like. What can we learn from Maryland’s example?


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Three years after replacing 50 percent of its staff, Annapolis High School, in Maryland, has seen dramatic improvements in its students' math and reading proficiency. Why can't Hawaii do this?

Photo: Christopher Myers

It's been a rough year for public education in Hawaii. State leaders responded to a budget crunch by killing 17 days of instruction, and then bickered the rest of the school year away. The situation made national news, prompting headlines like, “Hawaii’s Children, Left Behind.” We’ve been near the bottom of national student performance rankings for years; going from mediocre to laughingstock certainly wasn’t the change anyone hoped for.

Hawaii’s Department of Education has been promising reform and then failing to deliver it for so long that it seems sometimes that people have forgotten things don’t have to be this way. We might be falling short in our goals, but other states have managed to turn things around, and built public education systems of which they can be proud, or at least not ashamed.

We decided this year to take a look at one of these states, to see how things get done in a functional department of education, and to gather lessons we could apply here in Hawaii.

American education’s newspaper of record, Education Week, has for two years in a row ranked Maryland’s public education system No. 1 in the nation in its “Quality Counts” Annual Education Report. The report card grades states on both their education policies and their performances—a big-picture look at how well each system is doing. And Maryland is doing great.

How did they get to the top slot? How can we get there too?

•   Hawaii and Maryland have a lot in common.

Photo: Christopher Myers

At first glance, it might not make sense to compare Maryland with Hawaii. It has more than four times as many people, after all, and boasts a diversified economy with strong transportation, tech and manufacturing sectors.

But start looking at the factors that always get cited as reasons for Hawaii’s lagging performance, and there are a surprising number of similarities.

The percentage of Maryland families below the poverty level in 2007, according to the U.S. Census? 5.4. The percentage of Hawaii families? 5.4.

The percentage of Maryland children who have difficulty speaking English? 3. Hawaii’s? 4.

Both states even have the same above-average rate of school-age children attending private schools: 18 percent each, compared with 11 percent, nationally.

And perhaps most importantly, Maryland has risen to the top of the public education pile while spending $600 less on each student than Hawaii. Education Week found that, adjusted for regional cost differences, Maryland spent $11,074 per pupil in 2007, while Hawaii spent $11,676. (Per-pupil expenditure is a tricky statistic, because it depends on whether you include costs such as employee benefits. Dividing the DOE’s total expenditures by total enrollment gives a figure closer to $16,000.)

What’s the secret? Why do Maryland schools succeed while Hawaii’s languish? To find out, we spoke with Maryland state Department of Education employees at all levels, from the state superintendent to the principal of a local high school. We found six things key to Maryland’s success that Hawaii is either not doing well, or not doing at all.

•   Maryland takes accountability seriously.

Everyone says they care about accountability, but Maryland has been demanding it for years.

State superintendent Nancy Grasmick says Maryland’s turnaround started in 1993, when the state established its own statewide standards and created a reporting system called the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

The program predated the national No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program in tracking individual school performance and breaking out data for subgroups such as ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged students. Underperforming schools were targeted with improvement efforts, up to, and including, restructuring.

“For the first time, we were able to measure the progress of schools with a consistent set of standards,” says Grasmick. “It was an important event in the educational history of Maryland.”

When NCLB went into effect in 2001, Maryland simply retooled its assessment program to meet the federal requirements.

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