At a press conference, from left, are State Board of Education President Clarence Crawford, Interim State Superintendent Carey Wright, and board Vice President Joshua Michael. (Maryland Department of Education photo)

During 27 years in Howard County public schools, Carey Wright was a teacher, a principal at three elementary schools and eventually director of special education. She moved on to higher posts in Montgomery County, D.C., and finally state superintendent of schools in Mississippi, where she is credited with engineering a huge improvement in reading skills.

Wright was just appointed Maryland’s interim state superintendent of schools, with hopes of holding the job permanently.

State superintendent of schools might sound like a really important job — but it has less power than its importance. It is much like being prime minister of one of those coalition governments in parliamentary systems made up of splinter parties with conflicting ideologies.

Wright has far more experience in all aspects of public education than the man she replaces, Mohammed Choudhury. She also appears to have lots more collaborative leadership skills than the brilliant Choudhury, who apparently rubbed subordinates and peers the wrong way.

Need for collaboration

She will need those collaboration skills to accomplish in Maryland anything close to the turnaround she achieved in Mississippi, a state that spends far less per student than Maryland. (Actually, according to one U.S. Census table that adjusts for personal income, high-income, high-cost Maryland and low-income Mississippi spend comparable amounts per student.)

On Wright’s plate is the implementation of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the ambitious and expensive plan for Maryland public schools designed to have every student career or college ready by the 10th grade. 

The Blueprint came out of years of study by the Kirwan commission. Among its key benchmark findings were that based on international student achievement on standardized tests, U.S. schools ranked in the middle of the world pack, and Maryland ranked in the middle of the U.S. pack. So, Maryland is mediocre at best.

In order to achieve the world-class education that some people thought we already had, the commission studied the best practices of the world-class schools around the globe. The commission sought to emulate those best practices in a Maryland context.   

Among those best practices was heavy investment in the early years of school. Students who are not ready to learn in kindergarten and who are not proficient in reading and math by the third grade will fall further and further behind as they go on. The Blueprint plans to pay teachers more, while upgrading their professional training and status to those of other professions, like accounting. There is greater spending on community schools providing comprehensive health and social services at the elementary level. 

The commission finished its work three years ago. After a legislative massaging, a governor’s veto and implementation delays, the performance of Maryland’s students due to the pandemic is even worse than the commission originally found, and the cost of implementing its plan is billions higher.

No central control

One thing the commission did not recommend that Maryland emulate was the administrative structure of the world’s best education systems. Said it first report:

“All the top-performing countries have ministries of education either at the state or

national level. These ministries have no analogue to any unit of government in the

United States. They are generally responsible for education at all levels, prekindergarten, elementary and secondary education, and higher education. In most cases, these ministries sit at the top of a civil service structure for education that starts with classroom teachers and support personnel and moves up in a hierarchy to the top civil servant in the ministry.”

The commission didn’t even attempt to duplicate this top-down governing structure in Maryland. That would have meant the politically unpopular task of dismantling the local control exercised by 24 different school boards. But commission chair Brit Kirwan consistently emphasized that they needed some mechanism to hold local school systems accountable for making the reforms the influx of money was supposed to pay for. 

Centralizing more power in the state superintendent and the state school board that appoints the super was an option the commission rejected. What they created was an Accountability and Implementation Board that has the authority to monitor the state Department of Education and local school systems and allowed them to withhold funds if they weren’t following the Blueprint. But the Blueprint still gives many duties to the state superintendent, who already heads a 1,500-person bureaucracy, meaning the accountability board, the superintendent and the school board share oversight over local schools.   

Competing agencies and personalities with similar duties do not easily share power. One of the negatives against renewing Choudhury’s contract was the disagreement he had with the accountability board over the tasks they gave him.

What we have left is an ambitious and laudable plan to lift the performance of Maryland schools, particularly for those students with limited resources and poor home environments. This is executed by a mishmash of boards, agencies and institutions.

For instance, one aspect of the plan is to “increase rigor of teacher preparation programs and licensure requirements,” following a marketing program to get more of the best students to pursue teaching as a career. The state schools superintendent must write regulations to implement this plan. Yet this flies in the face of a worsening shortage of teachers that forces districts to hire people who barely qualify. It also requires universities to lengthen and improve teacher training programs, find better mentors for student teachers, and pay them for their trouble. But the state superintendent has no authority to make universities do anything.  Maryland already has a mélange of higher education agencies and boards. These include the University System and its board of regents, the Maryland Higher Education Commission, and separate boards of governance for Morgan State University and the 16 community colleges, which do some preliminary teacher training. 

The Initial Blueprint Comprehensive Implementation Plan sent to the governor and legislative leaders last year lays out a long list of duties for the state superintendent and state board to meet objectives that require rules, regulations, coordination and collaboration with a slew of agencies and boards over which they have no control. Unlike the centralized authority of the high-performing foreign school systems, the state superintendent has limited authority to require compliance from the 24 elected and appointed school boards and the superintendents they appoint, not to mention the unions of teacher, administrators and support staff.

This is a tall task for any chief education officer, who already has a full plate of duties and goals established by the other power center with which they must contend — the legislature. Wright has a lot of preparation for the task ahead. Let’s hope she’s up for it.