Six founders of NCEE’s Superintendents Alliance make the case for proficiency based education. Read more.

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future:
Everything Flows from High School Redesign

In my last blog, I described how the state of Maryland decided that it wanted an education system for its students as good as the best-performing systems in the world, and engaged our organization, the National Center on Education and the Economy, to advise the Commission it put in place to design such a system. This is the first of three blogs in which I will describe the recommendations made by the Kirwan Commission and the rationale behind them. 

I reported to you in a previous blog that the Commission’s recommendations resulted in comprehensive legislation that passed at the end of a session of the legislature abruptly terminated by the COVID-19 crisis. That legislation was subsequently vetoed by the Maryland Governor along with many other spending bills, given the virus’ effect on the state budget. However, the legislature has a supermajority that can overturn the Governor’s veto, of this particular bill, which is likely to happen when they return for a special session later this year or in January 2021.

We start our description of the design of the new Maryland education system with a focus on its redesign of the state’s high schools. System design is an engineering discipline. When engineers design systems, they start by specifying the performance standards they want their system to meet. Then they work backwards to make sure that every element of the system is fashioned so as to result in outcomes that meet the standards. The system we are concerned with here produces high school graduates. The question the Commission started with is what it might mean in terms of performance standards if the aim is to match the highest performance standards in the world.

We approached that question from two angles, both of which produce essentially the same answer. First, the Commission benchmarked global performance by comparing Maryland high school student performance to that of the students in the 79 countries surveyed by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Overall, as I pointed out in a previous blog, U.S. high school students perform very close to the average of all of the countries surveyed by the OECD, but leave high school two-and-a-half to three years behind their counterparts in the top-performing countries. Because Maryland students perform right in the middle of all the states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), we could take the average U.S. performance on the PISA assessment as a good measure of the performance of Maryland students. Because that is true, one could reasonably say that, in order to have a chance of matching the performance of the world’s top-performing students by the time they leave high school, the typical Maryland high school student would have to be at least two years ahead of where he or she is now by the end of grade 10, or around age 15.

That’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another. NCEE did a study years ago of what it actually takes to have a good chance of succeeding in the first year of a typical community college program. The answer is that a high school graduate needs to read at the 12th grade level, be able to demonstrate only a very modest writing ability and do middle school mathematics (essentially Algebra I plus statistics). On the order of half of the high school graduates applying to the typical community college cannot meet these criteria.

The Commission agreed that having a good chance of succeeding in the typical community college first-year program was the right bar. About half of the students who are in four-year colleges come from two-year colleges. Most of the serious vocational education in the United States is done in our community colleges, not our high schools. So, if you can’t succeed in the first year of a community college program, you are very likely to struggle to make a living for the rest of your life.

The Commission took the data showing how much further ahead students in the top-performing countries are when they graduate high school and combined it with the data coming out of NCEE’s community college study.

The result was agreement on a new performance standard for college and career readiness in Maryland. The aim of the new system would be to enable most Maryland high school students to be ready to succeed in the first year of a typical Maryland community college program by the end of their sophomore year in high school and for almost all to meet that standard by the time they leave high school. If Maryland students could do that, they would match the achievement of students in the top-performing countries, and they would be ready for success in the institution that now provides the most important gateway to opportunity in today’s economy.

But, when they meet that new college and career standard by the end of the sophomore year in high school, what do they do in the next two years, before they graduate? The answer is that they will have a program comparable in academic and technical challenge to the high school program in the top-performing countries. That would entail a radical departure, a 180-degree turn, from a century of American high school design. Our high schools are comprehensive—that is, all the students are under one roof—but they are sorted out into different tracks that offer very different opportunities. The tracking begins in first grade. The system the Commission embraced would be the end of that tracking system.

As soon as a student meets the new college and career ready standard, that student will be able to choose among four options. The first choice is to enroll in one of three of the world’s most demanding college and university prep programs: the College Board Advanced Placement Diploma program, made up of Advanced Placement courses; the International Baccalaureate Program and the University of Cambridge’s diploma program. All of these programs are recognized by the finest universities in the world. 

The second choice is a dual enrollment program designed to result in the award of an associate’s degree, the same degree now awarded by community colleges that serves as the gateway to the last two years of many four-year college programs. Students who succeed in this program would be awarded this degree at that same time they are awarded their high school diploma. They would get that degree at no cost to themselves or their parents, without having to leave high school, and, if they wanted to, could go straight into their junior year of college. 

The third choice is to enroll in a demanding career and technical education program that prepares them for jobs that pay well and lead to rewarding careers. This does not describe most current high school career and technical education programs. Today’s high school career and technical education programs are widely thought of as what a student does if that student cannot do academics. The problem is that there are few good jobs left of any kind that do not require academics. The career and technical education programs that will be available will be attractive to many Maryland students who are good at academics but love to work with their hands. They lead not to the dead ends that many career and technical education programs do now, but to as much further education as the student wants and to very exciting careers.

A fourth choice would allow the student to mix and match among some of these options.

Career and technical education is not a program. It is, or ought to be, a system. The Commission was introduced to the design of the vocational education and training systems in 

Singapore and Switzerland, the two most advanced systems in the world. Their vocational education systems tightly integrate education and training in their high schools, polytechnics and universities. They are governed not just by educators, but by partnerships of economic development and manpower planning officials, industry leaders and educators. They are built around the nation’s plans for winning and keeping leadership positions in key technologies. They offer years of deep training in highly technical fields combining theory and practical on-the-job work settings. A tiered occupational skills standards system provides the framework for the whole system. The Maryland design includes detailed plans to create such a system. The high school career and technical education system would be just one component of the larger learning system.

Maryland currently requires a broad array of subjects for graduation, including literature, mathematics, science, physical education, history, art, music and more. These requirements would stay in place. The new college and career ready standards will be in addition to, not instead of those standards. By putting these college and career standards in place, with a target for reaching them at the end of the sophomore year in high school, the state will lift the    expectations for study in every other subject, because high literacy in English and mathematics is the key to mastery in every other subject. This is why we are confident that this system will result in many, many more students being ready not just for enrolling in demanding programs like the International Baccalaureate or the college-level associate degree program, but for success in those programs. 

Each curriculum framework in the core curriculum will define the progression of topics to be offered in that subject area and the grade spans in which they are to be offered. The state is rolling out its latest version of English, mathematics and science examinations now. The exams will be given statewide and their results will available to the public, school by school.

What I have just described is a framework for an instructional system intended to result in nearly universal achievement of clearly defined goals that most students will be expected to achieve by the end of their sophomore year, and almost all students by the time they graduate from high school.

It is very ambitious. Maryland’s students are now achieving at levels way below the levels just described. But the Commission knew they could do it. That’s because students in more than a dozen countries who outperform students in the U.S. can now do it and have been doing it for years.

The Commission used this framework to build a system of accountability and governance, which I will describe in another blog. They knew, from studying the top-performing countries, that the objectives set by this framework are not achievable unless the state has a world-class teaching force. How they expect to achieve that goal will also be described in another blog as will the kind of pedagogy those top-notch teachers will be expected to use.

What I want to describe in the space that remains in this blog is the way in which various resources, including but not limited to time and money, will be used to bring this design to life. 

The way our sorting system operates is that students enter the system at the beginning of first grade with a wide variety of profiles and teachers generally are forced by circumstances to teach to the middle of the class. Many students enter the first grade with a very limited vocabulary and a set of cultural experiences that don’t prepare them for the demands of academic study in school. They have a hard time understanding what they are hearing and reading and therefore fall further and further behind in the primary grades, with the result that, by the end of third or fourth grade, they are so far behind that they try faking it and look for the first opportunity to avoid the embarrassment by dropping out. Next up the ladder are those who can squeak by but mostly get passed up the grades for showing up and not causing trouble. Then there are the students in the middle who the teachers are teaching to. They are the ones who graduate and apply to a community or four-year college. About half get through with a certificate or degree and another half have to take non-credit bearing courses, accumulate debt and drop out without a degree. Not more than a quarter to a third actually attain an economically valuable credential or a degree. At the top of this pole are the students who sit through the classes bored because the material being taught is so easy for them. That is how the sorting system works.

The Maryland system will turn the tracking system on its head. It won’t sort. All but those with the most severe disabilities will be expected to meet the demanding college and career readiness standard I’ve described.

First grade teachers will be expected to identify entering first graders who lack the background to fully engage with the first-grade program and make sure that each student gets whatever that student needs to profit from the first-grade curriculum. Students who are still behind will get special tutoring during the school day, before the regular school day and after it, as well as on the weekends and during the summer. Much more time will be available to teachers to engage with individual students and small groups of students who need extra help. Additional teachers will be available in schools serving students growing up in concentrated poverty.

In the past, a student’s time in school, from first grade to graduation, has been fixed. But the standard to which students have been educated has varied. The Maryland plan would change that. Under the Maryland blueprint, a floor for the standard will be set very high…and it will be the same for all students. The students who get the material quickly will have access to an enriched curriculum, but the vast majority will be expected to learn far more than they do now.  Every single aspect of the design flows from that commitment. No child left behind will not mean test-based teacher accountability. It will mean making sure that no child will be left behind. 

Some of you may be sympathetic to this agenda but wonder whether we fully understand the fiscal realities imposed by the pandemic. The challenge, you might say, is not how we reach for the stars but how we can maintain the essentials in a situation in which state and local revenues will plummet while their costs are skyrocketing.

To which I would say the following. If you read the global press carefully, you will find article after article describing surveys of employers responding to questions about their post-COVID-19 hiring plans. The theme that permeates these reports is that employers are planning to accelerate their investments in intelligent machines, robots and automation. They think that the virus will be with us for many years to come and others, possibly more devastating, are in the wings. By automating the jobs that can be automated today with these technologies—as many as half the jobs in the U.S. economy, according to one study, can avoid investing in very costly redesign of the facilities and processes to achieve social distancing and avoid shutting down to save lives. The jobs most likely to be eliminated are those that involve routine work, the kind of work that can be captured in a computer program. What will be left are mainly the jobs that require more education and higher skill levels.  

What is happening right now is that millions of school children from low-income families who have been sent home while schools are shut have either had no access to any formal education or have had to make do with much less effective education than they would otherwise have had. When they return to school, they will find that the gap between them and the children of wealthier families will have greatly increased and, in the normal course of events, will never be narrowed. The combination of these two facts will have profound effects. Those students in, say, the bottom quarter of our current performance distribution will leave school with less education than they have had in the past and will be facing a very hostile job market. The states with the largest proportions of these children will face enormous increases in the costs of their unemployment insurance programs, criminal justice systems, health care systems and social service systems and much less tax-based revenue to pay those costs. Pay now or face an economy that spirals downward. Those are the only two alternatives.