Laslo Boyd: An Education Agenda for Maryland’s Next Governor

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Will Martin O’Malley’s successor be an “Education Governor”?  O’Malley has talked a lot about the State’s number one ranking in “Education Week” as well as his support for stabilizing tuition at Maryland’s public universities.  Those achievements are a prominent part of the record that he is touting in his bid to win the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.

Given the high level of educational attainment by Maryland residents and the demand by Maryland businesses for highly educated employees, being pro-education is a must for any candidate for the office of governor.  The question for this election is whether any of the contenders will be the champion of major reform that is needed to move the state ahead in what is increasingly becoming an international competition.

American students are falling behind their peers from other countries on tests of math, science and reading.  Additionally, many citizens are woefully ignorant of basic facts about this country’s history and system of government.   Still more challenging are the gaps in achievement between rich and poor school districts.

Critics such as Diane Ravitch have been arguing for years for a fundamental restructuring of America’s education system.  Certainly, examples of innovation and evidence of approaches that make a difference exist in some schools.  However, the system as a whole remains remarkably resistant to reform.  In polls, citizens seem to agree that there is a problem generally, though not in their schools.

All three Democratic candidates for governor have endorsed the concept of universal Pre-K education.  Numerous studies support the value of universal Pre-K programs.  If actually implemented, this initiative would be a major positive step.

But it is still not fundamental reform of how teachers are prepared, how they gain the skills and experience they need, how we ensure that all students have highly qualified teachers, or how the system as a whole gets the support it needs to be effective.   Education reform in the United States, much talked about, has constantly been frustrated by entrenched interests, all claiming good intentions. 

What would significant reform look like?  You can, of course, find advocates for all manner of panaceas, from smaller class sizes, to more emphasis on the skills and authority of principals, to better funding of public education.  I wouldn’t disagree with the significance of any of those steps.

Alternative routes to certification and programs like “Teach for America” deserve a separate conversation.  So does the current debate about the Core Curriculum.  Similarly, everything that I am discussing here applies equally to the topic of charter schools, regardless of your views about them.

Let me suggest, nevertheless, a different path to structural reform.

First, we need to make some major changes in the way that we prepare prospective teachers for the classroom.   Ensuring that all teachers are well grounded in a substantive field can best be accomplished by abolishing all undergraduate programs in teacher education and requiring a degree in the subject field.  If, for example, you are going to teach math, you should have a degree in some aspect of mathematics.

The skills of the profession of teaching should be part of a graduate degree that builds upon a solid and comprehensive arts and science education including a major in a substantive academic field.  Moreover, that graduate training should have a strong and systematic clinical component, supervised by experienced practitioners.

I can already hear assertions by some that “we already do that.”  Great, but it’s far from universal and it’s often not rigorous.  Admission into schools of education should be competitive and highly desirable.  In too many universities, that undergraduate degree has among the least rigorous standards and attracts students who can’t get into other programs.

Upon completion of graduate education and the attainment of a provisional teaching certification, a new teacher should remain under the supervision of a “master” teacher for a full two years, receiving evaluations, feedback, guidance and support in incorporating best practices.

What I am describing is a true profession. To ensure that teaching attracts the most talented individuals who have to compete for positions, the career has to be better paid and supported than it is currently.   One key to better schools is a professional teaching corps that is empowered to be creative and innovative in the classroom.

Conversely, there isn’t room in the profession for people who don’t meet the standards.  Of course, there are good teachers today, but there need to be more of them.

This is the point at which all of our national rhetoric about the importance of education will be tested.  Are we willing to pay for it and tax ourselves to support it?

None of this is going to be easy to accomplish.  Gaining support for the kind of approach I have outlined will take bold and effective political leadership.  However, without such an initiative, American students will continue to fall behind students in other countries.    Similarly, the gap between the best prepared in this country and those who are left behind will grow larger and more dangerous.

Many would argue that poverty is the number one cause of school failure in the United States.  An education initiative that tackled that problem would be even more significant, but I’ve chosen to begin the discussion by focusing on the “relatively” easy part.

Is any candidate going to step up and claim the mantle of a true education governor?

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.