NCEE Convenes Education Leaders to Reflect on Groundbreaking Work of Kirwan Commission

Brendan Williams-Kief
by Bob Rothman

Leaders from Maryland and national education experts lauded a blueprint for education reform released by a 25-member Maryland commission and said it could vault the state into global leadership in education performance and serve as a model for the nation during an event on June 6 in Washington, DC hosted by NCEE.

The plan by the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education would raise the bar for college and career readiness to match those in the top-performing countries, attract highly-qualified high school graduates into teaching careers and redesign their career paths so they stay in the profession, build a first-class career and technical education system, expand free full-day preschool to all low-income 3- and 4-year-olds and make it available to all other 4-year-olds with fees set at a sliding scale, and provide the resources that special needs children and those living in concentrated poverty will need to perform far above current levels. 

 “The Maryland plan, if implemented nationwide, could do what the education reform movement has not been able to do: give the United States, once again, the best educated workforce in the world,” said Marc Tucker, founder and president emeritus of NCEE. 

Marc Tucker on MD Commission Plan

The Commission, known as the Kirwan Commission after its chairman, William “Brit” Kirwan, the former chancellor of the University System of Maryland, was tasked by Governor Larry Hogan and the legislature in 2016 with developing “new policies, implementation strategies, and updated funding formulas with a strong accountability system to enable all Maryland schools—and schoolchildren—to perform at the level of the world’s top education systems,” as the Commission’s report states. To assist the Commission, NCEE prepared a “gap analysis” that showed how Maryland’s system compared with those of the top-performing systems on a set of policies NCEE has identified as the “9 Building Blocks for a World-Class Education System.” 

Following two years of research into how Maryland’s policies and practices compare to those in top-performing U.S. states and international systems as well as dozens of public meetings and work sessions, the Commission released its Interim Report in January 2019. In the Report, the Commission recommended a series of steps in five areas:

  1. Investing in high-quality early childhood education and care. Significant expansion of full-day preschool, so that all children have the opportunity to begin kindergarten ready to learn.
  2. Elevating teachers and school leaders. Raising the standards and status of the teaching profession.
  3. Creating a world-class instructional system. An internationally benchmarked curriculum that enables most students to achieve “college- and career-ready” status by the end of tenth grade and then pursue pathways they choose, and a stronger system of identification and support for students that are not on track to meet that goal.
  4. Providing more support to students who need it the most. Broad and sustained new support for schools serving high concentrations of students living in poverty. 
  5. Ensuring excellence for all. An accountability-oversight board that has the authority to ensure that the Commission’s recommendations are successfully implemented and produce the desired results.

At the event, Paul Reville, the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the Commission’s report represents a redesign of the entire system for substantial improvements, not a series of incremental changes. “We’re taking a Model T that moved from 30 miles per hour to 60 miles per hour, and transforming it to a 21st century Tesla, capable of 120 miles per hour. We need a different engine.”

Paul Reville on MD Commission Plan

Kirwan said the Commission was motivated to act when members learned that, contrary to widespread belief, Maryland’s students were not performing at high levels. The state is performing at about the “middle of the pack” in the United States, which is at the middle of the pack of global rankings, he said. “What does that mean about the future of the state?” Kirwan said at the event. “We are not alone. What does that mean about the future of the country?”

The Commission’s plan is comprehensive, and participants at the event noted that the recommendations will only be effective if they are all implemented effectively. “All the recommendations are interwoven together,” said Craig Rice, a member of the Montgomery County (MD) Council and a Commission member. “You cannot pull one out. The only way in which to lift the system is to ensure all are moving simultaneously.”

However, participants at the event noted that the Commission and its supporters face a daunting challenge in building political support for adoption of the plan. The legislature in 2019 overwhelmingly endorsed the plan and approved a nearly $1 billion “down payment” primarily to expand pre-kindergarten, raise teacher salaries, and create “community schools” in high-poverty areas. The total price tag of the plan is $3.8 billion, however, and the legislature must determine how to divide the cost between the state and local districts and how to raise funds to finance and sustain the effort.

“The path ahead is difficult,” said Kirwan. “There is a huge hill to climb. There will be a need for additional investment in K-12 education, and we all know there will be resistance to finding revenue through an increase in taxes. It will only occur if we have a grassroots effort. It’s also got to come from corporate leaders and community leaders to make this case.”

But Rice said the investment is essential for the future of the state. Improvements in education affect all aspects of society, from health care to criminal justice to economic development. “It’s not about what you can afford, but what you can’t afford to not do,” Rice said.

Craig Rice on MD Commission Plan

At the event, NCEE also released “A Message to America” authored by Tucker and Betsy Brown Ruzzi, vice president of NCEE. The brief details how Maryland’s new education plan could be a template for producing the best-educated workforce in the world and urges 2020 presidential candidates to put system redesign of education at the top of their agendas.

View the event recording for A Blueprint for the Nation: Lessons from the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education here