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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 expects its students to perform, and they’re told how to succeed.

In its Quality Counts report, Education Week found that Maryland is doing a particularly good job with its education alignment policies. That’s a bit of edu-speak, but it essentially means that Maryland has made every part of its education system agree on what it means to be college-ready and career-ready. Kindergartens are shooting for the same standards as high schools, and there are fewer opportunities for pointing fingers.

Here are specific programs that Maryland has enacted and Hawaii has not, according to Education Week:

✓Maryland assesses the school-readiness of entering students.
✓ Maryland has officially defined college readiness.
✓ Maryland’s state K-12 system has defined work readiness.
✓ Maryland has aligned its high school diploma credits with the postsecondary system.
✓ Maryland has aligned its high school assessments with the postsecondary system.
✓ Maryland uses its high school assessments for post-secondary decisions.

Maryland also focuses not only on meeting the minimum achievement requirements, but also pushes its students to excel, with a strong, deliberate emphasis on Advanced Placement programs, particularly in underprivileged areas. As a result, Maryland has become the first state in the nation to have 40 percent of its seniors take at least one AP course.

Hawaii has a lot of catching up to do in this area. Educational nonprofit College Board found that, in 2009, almost 25 percent of Maryland’s graduating seniors scored a three or higher on an AP exam during high school, a 5.4 percent increase from 2004, and the highest achievement in the nation. Only 8.5 percent of Hawaii’s seniors were high-scoring, a number that has grown just 1 percent in the past five years.

•   Maryland keeps its board of education and state superintendent shielded from politics and cross-departmental bickering.

We’ll end with a look at governance in Maryland. It’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, since Maryland’s schools are owned and staffed at the county level as is the case in every state but Hawaii, and its state DOE is more supervisory.

With our single, central DOE, you’d think we’d have the edge over Maryland on governance, but, no. Despite being four times our size, Maryland still has clearer, straighter lines of command.

State superintendent Grasmick meets with the superintendents of each of the 24 counties on a monthly basis, identifying problem areas and developing solutions that work on both a state and local level.

“If I was trying to operate the entire state—I’m just trying to walk in Hawaii’s shoes for a moment—and I didn’t have the benefit of those superintendents, not large in number, but bringing different, well-informed perspectives to the table, I don’t think we’d have been as successful.”

In addition, Maryland shields its education system from day-to-day politics. The Maryland state Legislature tends to take a hands-off approach. Grasmick says, “There’s been a strong commitment by our general assembly that they don’t want public education manipulated by politics. It’s not that they don’t introduce bills that sometimes seem intrusive. They do. But we would never consider allowing them to make curricular decisions.”

Also, the state Board of Education is formulated in a way that reinforces its independence. The 12 members are not elected, but appointed by the governor, in staggered four-year terms, which promotes stability and accountability. And the state superintendent is appointed by the board for a four-year, renewable term.

This is one area in which Hawaii may be making progress. As we went to press, the state Legislature was considering a bill that would allow the governor to appoint Board of Education members, in a manner similar to Maryland’s.

Terrence George, vice president and executive director of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, says it would be a step in the right direction. But only one step. “Education is the most important public service the state of Hawaii provides, and the governor should be held accountable for it,” he says. “That can’t happen until [the governor has] a more direct line of authority. I agree that the board ought to be appointed. But I also think we need to be careful about assuming that our problems are solved at that point.”

Yes, Maryland may be several leaps ahead of Hawaii when it comes to public education. It’s gotten there by demanding accountability, by giving its leaders the authority and resources to enact change, and by pushing its students to excellence. But, importantly, Maryland shows that change is possible, given the right leadership, the right policies and the right expectations.                                     

HONOLULU’s sister magazine, Hawaii Business, is also covering public education in its May issue. Check out their coverage, which includes stories on our state’s public charter schools, as well as an interview with the man who created what many educators call the best public school district in North America. HB also features Hawaii’s Children First: A declaration from Hawaii’s three living, former governors on transforming our schools, and a panel discussion on the future of public schools from six local education leaders.


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