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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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•   Maryland puts strings on its education money, to ensure the money makes a real difference.

Annapolis high school teacher Anna Harding was one of the new instructors hired after the school forced its entire staff to reapply for their jobs. Three years after the reorganization, Annapolis High School has seen dramatic improvements in student achievement.

Photo: Christopher Myers

Just about everyone we spoke with mentioned the Bridge to Excellence Act as a hugely important factor in improving Maryland’s public education system.

Enacted in 2002, the bill called for a “dramatic restructuring of the state’s school finance system, including substantial increases in state aid for education.” Its main goal was to erase the inequalities between richer and poorer counties, and to give schools greater spending control.
By 2008, Maryland had spent an additional $1.3 billion on local school systems, funded in part by a 34-cent increase in the state tax on cigarettes. In total, state aid increased by 75 percent between 2002 and 2008.

As a result, schools reported significant improvements in the number of students proficient in reading and math. Between 2004 and 2008, for example, the percentage of elementary students who were proficient or better on the Maryland State Assessments for reading jumped almost 15 percentage points. Improvements were even better for historically underperforming groups, such as economically disadvantaged students and students with limited proficiency in English.

Of course, while a huge infusion of cash sounds like an easy fix, the money wasn’t a magic bullet. Remember that even after all this extra funding, Maryland still spends less per student than Hawaii. The important thing was how the money was used.

To receive additional funding from the Bridge to Excellence (BTE) Act, each local school system had to execute a five-year comprehensive master plan. The state department of education tracked the progress of each school annually, and schools not meeting performance goals were forced to retool their plans.

“The plans were replete with data,” Grasmick says. “Nothing was invisible, in terms of the school system. Everything was in that plan, and if schools didn’t achieve, there had to be dramatic changes.”

As part of the bill’s requirements, the Maryland state DOE even commissioned a comprehensive, independent, three-year audit of the effects of the BTE Act, to identify what worked and what didn’t.

On paper, Hawaii has something similar to the Bridge to Excellence Act. Hawaii’s Reinventing Education Act of 2004, or Act 51, was supposed to guide additional money to schools that needed it, and put more of a school’s budget in the hands of its principal. In theory, Hawaii should have an easier time allocating money effectively; after all, our DOE doesn’t just assist local schools with funding the way Maryland’s does—it owns them.

But we’ve dropped the ball. Hawaii adopted a weighted student formula, which based funding levels on individual student need, rather than enrollment. But when the formula resulted in some schools receiving less money, those schools complained, and the DOE caved and set up separate funds to give those schools extra money—a move that hobbled the intention of Act 51.

Education reform proponent Randy Roth says he still thinks a weighted student formula is a great concept, and a necessary ingredient in a good, decentralized system. “But the way it’s been designed and implemented thus far has made it more of a burden than a benefit,” he says. “It’s being implemented either by people who don’t understand it or don’t frankly want the system to be more decentralized.”

•   Maryland opens the door to new teachers, even to older career-changers.

As we discussed in our public education feature last May, teachers are among the most important factors in children’s successes. An effective school system must attract effective teachers, and keep them. Maryland is doing just that, and it’s in large part thanks to the Department of Education’s welcoming attitude toward potential teachers, whether they’re coming from conventional avenues, or deciding to make a career change later in life.

For the latter group, Maryland offers 22 different pathways to alternative certification, many of which offer a faster entry into teaching without having to jump through all of the normal college of education hoops. By partnering with a school system, these programs convert on-the-job experience into the equivalent of a master’s degree.

In fact, teacher-hopefuls who visit Maryland’s DOE site are even greeted with an understandable, plain-English guide to becoming a public school teacher, either as a recent college graduate or a career changer. The guide translates the legalese normally found on government Web sites into an easy, step-by-step plan. (It starts off: “Deciding to become a teacher even though you didn’t think about it in college and then making it happen can be a daunting task! … Well, Maryland has worked hard in the past few years to open some doors just for you …”)
Superintendent Grasmick says these programs have helped alleviate teacher shortages. “In math and science, especially, we’ve gotten a lot of career changers with military or corporate experience.”

In Hawaii, the DOE accepts teachers from several alternative licensing programs, particularly in special education, but, on the whole, it’s gained a reputation for a legalistic and difficult teacher licensing process.

Mitch D’Olier, president and CEO of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, has worked to improve Hawaii’s education system for years, and says there are too many barriers for would-be teachers. “I think our teacher certification process keeps good people out,” he says. “I think it’s a guild. It has more to do with keeping people out of Hawaii unless you went to the University of Hawaii than it does about anything else. I would abandon it.”

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