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On Monday, February 17, in an unprecedented joint session, the Maryland legislature gathered for a marathon hearing on a revolutionary piece of legislation aimed at transforming the state’s education system, the first step on the path to a final vote later this Spring. The committees were considering the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. If it passes, the legislation will be a model for other states interested in building an education system that matches the best in the world on student achievement, equity and efficiency. Four years earlier, the legislature assembled the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education to report back on what it would take for Maryland to catch up to the countries with the world’s best systems. No state had ever done that before. Now, four years later, the legislature launched hearings on legislation faithfully reflecting the recommendations of the Commission.

Blueprint for Maryland's FutureThe state was motivated to consider redesigning its whole education system by taking a hard look at the current status of education in the United States and Maryland. The average performance of American high school students in reading and mathematics has hardly changed at all in close to half a century. While our country’s performance has stood still, one country after another has come from behind to surge past us. In some of these countries, the average student graduates from high school three or four years ahead of our students. In the United States, the typical high school graduate goes on to a curriculum in college that students in the top-performing countries would be getting in their first year of high school. And a large fraction of our college students never complete college because they leave high school unprepared to succeed in what in these other countries is only a high school curriculum.  

The Commission, known as the Kirwan Commission after its chair William “Brit” Kirwan, learned that, despite living in one of the wealthiest states in the nation, Maryland’s students are performing right at the national average. That means that everything just reported about the position of the United States relative to the top performers is also true of Maryland. The legislation that was presented to the joint session of the Maryland legislature is aimed right at these facts. It is intended to enable the Maryland system to vault its students to the same level as students in the top systems by the time they leave high school, dramatically reduce the gaps in achievement between Maryland’s most disadvantaged students and those achieving at the highest levels and do all this at a cost the state can afford.

There is something ironic about this goal. At the end of World War II, the U.S. was widely believed to have the best education system in the world. We had gotten there in part by copying and improving on developments in Europe, building on what the Prussians had done in primary education, what the Scots had done in vocational and technical education and what the Germans had done when they built their research universities. Then, when our system was the admiration of the world in the 1960’s, we stood still, while other countries, many of which were actually largely illiterate at the end of the Second World War, sent delegations to the U.S. to learn from us and ended up, as I said above, surging right past us. This kind of leapfrogging is nothing new in world affairs. But the need for the U.S. to do it now and do it well has become urgent.

If Maryland succeeds, it could provide a road map for every other state in the U.S. to do the same thing. This would require a transformation of the American education system, but would lead to no less of a transformation in the performance of American students. 

This is only the third time in the last half century that an American state has, in effect, embarked on what amounted to a complete redesign of its education system. The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 was the first. It vaulted Kentucky from near the bottom of the U.S. state rankings to the middle. The second was the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, which brought Massachusetts to the top of U.S. rankings.

But Kentucky has been stuck in the middle of the U.S. rankings for years and Massachusetts has been unable to narrow the achievement gap between its disadvantaged students and those in the majority and, while Massachusetts is among the world’s top performers in reading and science, it is still way behind in mathematics. In both cases, after the initial burst of improvement, stagnation had set in.

What makes the Maryland bill unique is the fact that it alone was based on a very careful study of the strategies that the countries with the world’s top-performing education systems have used with success, along with careful consideration of the lessons learned from the top U.S. states.  

Consider the difference that makes. Suppose that you are doing something at a mediocre level and you want to do it really well. How do you get there? If no one is doing it better than you are, then you have to guess at what you have to do to improve. You might guess well and you might guess badly. If it is something really complicated, with a lot of moving parts, like education, the chances that you will make a lot of good guesses and only a few bad ones are miniscule.  

Now suppose that you have a model, someone who is already doing it really well. That changes everything. Now you have a model to work from and you just need a coach. But suppose that the model you are using was developed in a place that is different from yours in important ways. That introduces some uncertainty, because it might not work as well in your situation.  Now, though, suppose that there are a whole bunch of other folks, quite different from each other, who are doing a lot better than you are. The contexts in which those models were developed are different from each other and from yours in important ways, but all are doing much better than you are. Now you can try to figure out what principles are being followed by all of those who are more successful than you are, even though the details of their systems are different. After all, you are not out to copy them, but to learn as much as possible from them as you redesign your own system to fit your own situation. If you succeed in doing this, your chances of greatly improving your own performance just shot up a lot.

That is what Maryland’s Kirwan Commission did and, as a result, we now are watching history being made. When the legislators gathered for their joint session last week, the excitement was palpable. The largest hearing room in the general assembly quickly filled to overflowing. All the downtown parking lots in Annapolis did the same. Another room was set up near the hearing room with monitors for the overflow crowd. But that room filled to overflowing, so yet another overflow room with monitors was set up. That was still not enough room for those who had come to support the bill. A big crowd formed in the cold outside, on the sidewalk and the street, carrying signs of support. The hearing lasted for six hours. Almost 120 people testified, all but a handful in favor.  

In my next blog, I will describe how the Kirwan Commission came into being and the process it followed. In the blogs that follow, I will describe the whole design of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, piece by piece.  And, as time goes by, and the legislature acts on the legislation, I will keep you informed.