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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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State superintendent Nancy Crasmick has overseen almost two decades of improvement in Maryland's public schools.

Photo: Christopher Myers

Measuring school performance is an important first step, but, crucially, Maryland’s district superintendents have the authority to shake up schools that aren’t meeting the marks.

One of the highest-profile examples of this has been Annapolis High School. Located in Anne Arundel County, south of Baltimore, the school is home to a diverse student population—38 percent white, 38 percent African American, and the fastest growing Hispanic population in the county. By 2007, Annapolis had, for four years in a row, failed to meet the adequate yearly progress (AYP) required by NCLB. With three different principals in five years, discipline problems, low morale—Annapolis was in trouble.

Then, district superintendent Kevin Maxwell announced that everyone on staff would have to reapply for their jobs, from the principal to the custodians. “I was very concerned with what we had been seeing,” he says. “I didn’t see any evidence that they were capable of producing any different results. And so we started talking about our options.”

The move was controversial, drawing fire from parents, community members and not least the teachers themselves, who saw it as a vote of no confidence. School principal Don Lilley, who began at the school in 2004 and was suddenly in the same boat, says, “It was difficult news to digest. Of course you believe that you’re doing your best. But I understood it had to be done.”

Many teachers decided not to re-apply, but Lilley and others did. In the end, about half of the school’s staff was replaced. Lilley won his job back, and oversaw the grueling hiring process. “I wanted people here who truly cared,” he says. “You had to sell that to me, during your interview, that you were excited to be part of our team, to do what was necessary to help the students. Some were not on board with the changes. I told them, well, this may not be the place for you.”

Remaking the staff was just the beginning. Maxwell and Lilley moved the staff from a 10-month to a 12-month schedule, which allowed for increased professional development, and created a three-week summer bridge program to give incoming ninth graders a jumpstart on instruction.

Lilley also hired community ambassadors to reach out to the public and track down truant students.

Three years later, the overhaul has paid off. Annapolis High School is now consistently meeting AYP, with 92 percent of students proficient or better in math, and 85 percent proficient in reading. In 2009, Lilley says, 83 percent of seniors went on to post-high-school education, and Annapolis students garnered $7.5 million in scholarships, up from $2.5 million in 2006.

But what about the teacher’s union? Didn’t collective-bargaining agreements stop superintendent Maxwell from getting rid of his underperforming teachers? Not to hear him tell it. “I made my decision, I announced my decision to the faculty. And then we had the unions sit down with my negotiating team and work through things,” Maxwell says. “There’s nothing in the law that prevented me from doing that.”
In Hawaii, meanwhile, the hands of superintendents and principals remain tied when it comes to this kind of effective school reform.

Former Hawaii state superintendent Pat Hamamoto pushed last year for legislation that would have given her the authority to fire and hire staff at failing schools, but the bill stalled in committee and was carried over to this year’s session, where it hasn’t gone anywhere.

•   Maryland’s school leaders aren’t unionized, and have contracts that require performance.

Not only do Maryland’s principals and superintendents have the authority to enact change, they’re required to.

All of the state’s 24 district superintendents are on four-year performance contracts, a factor that Maxwell cited as a big motivation. “You have to get results before you go to renew your contract, so you don’t have a lot of time to fool around,” he says. “I felt the pressure to make a difference, both to show that I was capable of it, but also because we’re talking about our kids.”

Maryland’s principals, too, survive on their ability to successfully lead a school. “The principals’ contract is as a teacher,” explains Grasmick. “They don’t have contracts as principals. So their ability to remain principals is based on their performance, and if they’re not up to par, we have the ability to place them as teachers.”

Hawaii, in contrast, remains the only state in which the entire public education system’s principals, vice principals and other school administrators are unionized. Hawaii Reinventing Education Act of 2004 mandated that the DOE plan to put principals on performance contracts by the 2006-2007 school year. Today, in 2010, no such plans have materialized, and no principal has signed a performance contract.

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