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?

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.


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.


•   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.”


•   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.