In my experience with community organizing, labor organizing and political campaigns, we often use a 1-5 ranking scale to assess people’s support for a cause. One equals strong support, 2 equals support, 3 equates with neutrality or unknown support, 4 means opposition and 5 equals strong or coordinated opposition.
This simplification does not capture every nuance of a person’s thinking and likely behavior, but it works. Applying this scale to what figures to be both vocal support and vocal opposition to Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury’s likely contract renewal brings clarity to a complex situation.
For example, the 5′s, or strong-opposition rankings, could be applied to an anonymous group that identifies itself as a “parents organization” in Carroll County, conservative anti-public education media outlets, former midlevel state education staffer Robert Eccles and former Baltimore City school board member Kalman Hettleman.
Some Choudhury opponents began circulating inaccurate accounts of missing test scores in March, and reporting in The Baltimore Banner refuted those accounts.
Since I wrote a Maryland Matters article conditionally supporting Superintendent Choudhury’s contract renewal, a few 4-level opponents have reached out to me. These are well-intentioned, passionate, skilled and well-informed educators and retired educators (none are current or recent classroom teachers, teaching assistants or school support staff). When I probed for specific reasons for not supporting the superintendent, they repeatedly cited his leadership style and decision-making process. They also cited what they said is the Maryland State Department of Education’s insular hierarchy and the lack of progress in implementation of its Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education policy.
All these concerns are valid but are mostly not attributable to Choudhury. They stem from longstanding problems with MSDE and are inherent to implementing a social-education policy, the Blueprint, on a scale not seen in Maryland since President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s.
The exception to the shortcomings of MSDE being outside his control is Choudhury’s leadership style. Notably, one of the Blueprint’s objectives of college and career readiness for Maryland students includes workplace soft skills. Choudhury’s objectives could include further developing his own soft skills to be an uplifting motivational leader, not just a brilliant policy wonk.
Just as Choudhury must have been 12 years ago as a classroom English, English as a second language and social studies teacher, he must be patient. He must be quick to praise his team publicly for work well done. He must build scaffolding around the blueprint of his vision to ensure we construct our educational future safely, competently and collectively.
Furthermore, Choudhury and his top staff should hold biannual, general topic open forums to hear directly from community members before and after every school year. Education advocates accustomed to automatic access to decision-makers should expand their toolkit and collaborate with coalitions whose tone and tactics have netted initially mixed successes under MSDE’s new leader.
If the superintendent was not brown, his name was not Mohammed and he did not have a Texas by way of Southern California communication style, would his leadership be perceived differently? I put it more bluntly when I wrote last month that the campaign against him is framed by racist, anti-Asian stereotypes. Mainstream, principled critics should quickly and publicly distance themselves from attacks on the superintendent by self-described parents and patriots groups in Carroll County, on the Eastern Shore and in other parts of the state who seek to undermine public education generally. Principled critics should make policy-based critiques of Choudhury, not personality critiques seemingly related to diminished personal access to him.
If you are reading this, care about the future of education in Maryland and have not spoken out publicly, you are probably a neutral 3 on the scale of support. I urge you to share your thoughts and experiences widely and respectfully. Put your name behind your words.
Many hit the scale as 2′s. These folks support Choudhury or are at least willing to give him a chance. After all, he has not served for a full contract. He is nearing the completion of the middle two years of the former superintendent’s contract. Three times as many 2′s contacted me as 4′s after my Maryland Matters article May 11. There is plenty of social network bias in that unscientific ratio. Nonetheless, I encourage 3′s and 2′s to speak out and join grassroots community-organizing efforts to make our schools more inclusively excellent.
I am a definite 1 on the support scale. I am publicly and privately working to ensure Choudhury’s contract is renewed not as his ally, his friend or his fan. I have criticized him in print and organized during his entire tenure to pressure him from every angle I can imagine. I want him to do better for historically marginalized students, teachers, educators, families and school communities.
Gov. Wes Moore recently appointed three members to the state school board who seem to indicate continuity rather than a course reversal. Analysis of their priorities and networks indicates they may be 2′s or 3′s on the level-of-support scale, reinforcing the board’s leadership, which also favors continuity in the leadership of the state’s schools.
Samreen Sheraz, a Baltimore City College High School multilingual alumna and current molecular and cellular biology student at the Johns Hopkins University, met Superintendent Choudhury in an online meeting.
“I was really captivated by his approach,” Sheraz said. “He was open to our suggestions and comments about the different aspects in our schools that could be changed, as well as asking for our input throughout the process. He is making sure that students in Maryland get an equal opportunity in their education and is working hard toward it.”
In the May 11 article, I wrote that were the State Board of Education, appointed by the governor, not to renew the superintendent’s contract, it would be “catastrophic.” I stand by that word choice.
In another time, the scenario I describe above might not be catastrophic. But coming out of the pandemic and coming into the most critical implementation period of the multibillion-dollar Blueprint law is not the time to mess around and find out. Maryland students, teachers, educators, families and school communities are brilliant and will find a way to succeed against any odds. Stable, visionary and, yes, kind and accessible leadership will maximize our chances of success.
Owen Silverman Andrews is a community college teacher, community organizer and education policy advocate based in Baltimore.