I have had the privilege of serving as president of the Maryland State Board of Education for the past three years, each of which has been unprecedented in the history of our state’s school system. Lawmakers have passed sweeping educational reform legislation with a $4 billion investment in the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

This comes as Maryland has seen student performance decline even further than prepandemic levels. Prepandemic student performance was already stagnant or declining over a long period. Now, the state has seen the percentage of middle school students proficient in math fall to single digits in a significant number of counties. There is a lot of work to be done.

Our focus needs to be on the children and, as state board president, I am clear-eyed about our mission. To that end, I am concerned about distractions that steer focus away from our children.

The state board knew when it hired Mohammed Choudhury as state school superintendent in July 2021 that he is a change agent whose lifelong work centers on meaningful educational transformation and an unwavering commitment to improving student outcomes.

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In large measure, this is exactly what the superintendent has been. The Maryland State Department of Education has been transformed from years past and is no longer set up as a compliance agency. It is becoming an agency that leads in providing policy and technical assistance to local school systems and other stakeholders. The superintendent cut the number of vacancies he inherited in half. The vacancy rate at MSDE is now at a decadelong low, with fewer than 100 vacancies among the 1,400-plus positions within the department. In addition, he cut the attrition rate by 35%.

MSDE and the state board have taken the lead on implementing the Blueprint and recently completed its comprehensive process to build and adopt a statewide strategic plan that will serve as a road map for the future of the state’s education system. For example, MSDE used more than $50 million in Maryland Leads grants out of its pandemic federal funds to incentivize 23 of the 24 local education agencies to commit to retraining their teachers and developing and implementing evidence-based, Science of Reading-aligned curriculum. This initiative will help stem literacy learning loss — and the initial data that districts have presented to the state board is promising.

Moreover, the superintendent led the charge in codifying this change in Maryland’s local education agencies. Blueprint Implementation Plan components and related success criteria, which were subsequently approved by the Accountability and Implementation Board, require those local agencies to articulate and commit to comprehensive literacy plans aligned to the Science of Reading.

In addition, 23 of the local agencies were awarded more than $45 million in grants that they will use to help address teacher shortages by tailoring local initiatives to grow their own pipelines of teachers. Most recently, MSDE entered into the National Partnership for Student Success. In collaboration with Gov. Wes Moore and the Biden administration, it established the Maryland Tutoring Corps, which is an innovative, highly competitive grant opportunity that seeks to put into place high-quality school-day tutoring for secondary math.

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future correctly focuses on the professional development of our educators because public education must invest in its leaders, administrators and teachers as part of educational transformation. MSDE and the state board will leverage the Blueprint and other sources to provide change management, high-performance workplace training and executive coaching support for our leaders. Having well-prepared leadership is critical to the success of our children because real transformation takes place in each of the state’s 1,400 schools.

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Those are just a few examples of how we are leading the way forward.

The state board has reviewed criticism of MSDE’s work environment from a few former employees. While the board will continue to work toward creating a high-performance work environment, employee dissatisfaction is not uncommon in large and small workplaces. In fact, the Conference Board recently reported an all-time high in American job satisfaction of 62%, which means 38% of workers are not satisfied. When credible issues arise, the state board will always do its due diligence as the oversight body of the department.

Transformation of any system, including Maryland’s public education, is a people business. The state board and the superintendent understand how important it is to maintain valued, trusted relationships with local boards and superintendents, Moore, members of the General Assembly, the Accountability and Implementation Board, parents and guardians, and other crucial stakeholders. People and organizations such as the MSDE and the state board can always improve the effectiveness of their communication.

It is time, however, to turn our attention fully to the children in Maryland. We must realize the potential of this moment and the promise of the Blueprint legislation and the strategic plan to deliver transformational opportunities that will help our children build a successful future.

Clarence C. Crawford is president of the Maryland State Board of Education.

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