Kirwan recommendations will fail if same mistakes are made as with Thornton, consultant says

Kirwan recommendations will fail if same mistakes are made as with Thornton, consultant says

From the cover of the preliminary report.

The Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence spent much of Wednesday afternoon discussing how to hold Maryland schools accountable for the major changes in structure, requirements and programs it will be recommending — and the big increase in funding they will require.

One of the most interesting pieces of testimony the commission heard was from its consultant Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has provided the framework for massive reform of Maryland’s public school system based on NCEE’s research about top performing schools around the world. Here is a lightly edited transcript of his remarks.

By Marc Tucker

National Center on Education and the Economy

Marc Tucker

I think Thornton failed to deliver the improvement in student performance that its authors envisioned because no one was held accountable. [Thornton was the massive increase in school aid passed in 2002.]

Thornton envisioned increases in funding totaling about 80% percent in state funding for schools — about $1.1 billion dollars and promised that it would be adjusted for inflation.

From 2000 to 2008, there was an actual increase of $2.3 billion dollars. After 2008, the inflation increases came to an end, but between 2008 and 2016 but it was still another increase of $950 million.

So there was a total increase following Thornton of $3.2 billion dollars over that period, a 113% increase in state aid for education. It’s a lot of money. Thornton also required that the MSDE [Maryland State Department of Education] withhold funds from districts that were not implementing Thornton recommendations, but it never did that.

A formula was used to distribute the funds but the school boards were free to use that money as they wished — as had always been the case before. The result was only a very modest improvement in student performance. From 2003 through 2017, there was a very modest improvement [in student tests scores on national tests.]

The investment from Thornton led to an improvement in Maryland that was no greater than in the nation as a whole. Maryland still wound up exactly where it began — in the middle of the pack. Maryland now ends up with one of the most expensive state systems in the United States but only average student performance.

Expensive but only average performance

The state Department of Education was not held accountable by the legislature for its failure to hold districts accountable for their performance. So it’s no surprise that an independent evaluator found that the districts had not implemented proven reforms on which the Thornton recommendations were premised. More money was spent, but essentially it was spent on what had already been going on.

I am not pointing fingers. What I have just described is I think the natural result of a very long tradition of the state aiding schools in the conviction that decisions about how to spend the money the state provides in aid are best made at the local level. In that respect, Maryland is no different from almost all other states in the United States.

But I conclude Kirwan will fail if the same mistakes are made again. You will get exactly what you got. So let’s go back to the premises of the current Kirwan Commission work.

The commission was tasked in the first instance with revising school funding formulas and making recommendations to bring Maryland up to global performance standards. That in essence was the charge.

The commission then studied the strategies used by the top performers to get to the top — superior achievement and much greater equity [for students]. That is [the students] are not only performing at much higher levels but the distance between the top tenth and the bottom tenth of kids is much shorter in those countries than it is here. That is something no state in the United States has been able to do.

The commission understands that this cannot be done unless major changes are made in the system we implement the benchmark strategies. It also understands — and this is key — that the data show that once a country or a state invests $50,000 in students over their entire time in school, above that, how that money is spent is more important than how much is spent.

How the money is spent

I conclude two things from this. First it’s essential that beyond a certain funding level, money should go to districts and schools only if that district and that school is implementing the strategies that the top performing countries have used to create their high performing systems. {See below for those strategies}

They need a system that is designed on the same principles as the top performing systems are designed. And if they’re not doing that, they should not get the additional money because what the commission spent a year doing was discovering that there are a set of principles that underlie the design of the high performing systems and those principles are nearly universal. They’re the same in Asia as they are in Europe. The same in Australia as they are in Canada — and you don’t find them here in the United States.

Two, I conclude that the state will need to have a small oversight unit with budget and regulatory power holding the state agencies responsible for implementation accountable for their performance during the implementation period, after which the oversight unit should be abolished.

This is to say that I am exactly where former Superintendent Nancy Grasmick is. [She testified before Tucker.} If you are going to get fundamental changes in the design of the whole system here — not just the part for which the State Department of Education is responsible but the entire system (including the local boards), you will need to have, as she said, a small group of people who are dedicated to nothing but and have the authority to make it happen — in collaboration with the state agencies that are entrusted with the implementation.

Toxic results from test-based teacher accountability

I sense that around the table is a good deal of agreement that test-based teacher accountability of the kind that has dominated the discussion of accountability in the United States since the year 2000 in which “No Child Left Behind” was introduced in the United States Senate has produced absolutely toxic results.

It is largely responsible for the situation that was described earlier in which applications to schools of education are plummeting, very good teachers are leaving, and we have a profession that nobody wants to get into. That cannot continue without the implosion of the American school system.

The fundamental drift of what the commission has done over this last year and a half, it seems to me, has come to an agreement that what is needed to reverse that is what the top performers have dedicated themselves to:

  • attracting many of the best and brightest kids in our high schools into this profession;
  • paying them the way they need to be paid;
  • creating professional conditions of work for them, making it possible for them to do their best work;
  • giving them incentives that are very like those in professional service firms for people to get better and better and better at the work for every day and for as many years as they are on the job;
  • and give them the support they need to get the job done.

It’s not a complicated formula but it’s utterly different from what we have been mostly doing in the United States especially since test-based teacher accountability was first introduced. The commission it seems to me has fundamentally adopted the perspective of the top performing systems, building on a strong vision of teacher professionalism.

If you look as sociologists do at the high status profession, what I see is a recurring factor and it’s really important.

You do see the people doing the work report to people who are higher in the hierarchy and they are. That is what you see in schools but it’s very different. Along with that, what you see is a much more important form of accountability among the people to each other.

In a well functioning law firm everybody understands that if a legal researcher is not doing his or her job, everybody else’s job is imperiled. If the person who goes out and gets new business is not doing his or her job, everybody else’s job is in peril. If the people who are good litigators fall down on the job, everybody else is in trouble too. They are all highly interdependent.

Accountable to each other

The whole drift of the commission’s work has been in effect not only to improve teachers pay but to change the place in which they’re working so that they work like the people in medical practice are working, in architectural firms, in accounting firms, in law firms. They work as a team.

Test-based accountability destroys what I just described. It’s antithetical to that idea. And yet if you look what it actually means to be a high status professional in this country or any other what I just said is central to the idea of being a profession.

Sociologists call this lateral accountability. It’s accountability to your peers, with your peers. We’re all accountable to each other.

When you put that kind of accountability side by side with accountability to people to whom you report, what you have is the most powerful form of accountability there is in any social organization.

I’m saying this because I think the conclusions that I have drawn and I think many others around the table back — that Kirwan will not succeed and be any better than its predecessor unless there is a strong oversight body to make sure it will succeed. But it’s not the only idea of accountability on the table.

If you look at what the commission has done there are many pieces of accountability. It seems to me this idea of mutual accountability — of people working together in this school toward a common end totally dependent on each other. And by the way, it’s a vision in which because they work together all the time they know how well each other is doing. They are in the best position to make a judgment — not the worst — about who is doing well and who isn’t.

What you want to see in a really good professional service firm is that the workers are the owners and they’re also the managers. You don’t see this division between the people who do the work and people who make decisions that you see at schools.

Everybody’s in it together. That form of accountability is very powerful. I believe that is really what the commission is putting on the table.

From previous story on

Nine Building Blocks: What it will take for Maryland to compete

Here are the nine building blocks recommended by the National Center for Education and the Economy, with a link to Tucker’s initial presentation spelling out “What It Will Take For Maryland To Compete With The Best Education Systems in the World.”

  1. Strong supports for children and their families.This includes comprehensive supports for families with young children, from family allowances to prenatal care to nutritional assistance and more affordable day care, preschools and early childhood education.
  2. More resources for students who are harder to educate:The United States is the only advanced country in which children of the wealthy get more financial support than children of the poor, Tucker said. They also need more teachers per student and, in some cases, the best teachers, in schools serving disadvantaged students.
  3. World-class, highly coherent instructional systemswith internationally benchmarked student performance standards and matching curriculum frameworks.
  4. Qualification systems with multiple no-dead-end pathways for students to achieve those qualifications. No high school diploma but requirements at the end of each education stage to match the requirements for beginning the next stage.
  5. Abundant supply of highly qualified teachers. Recruit most teachers from upper segment of high school graduates. Move teacher education into research universities with entrance requirements like those of selective universities and give them tough content with research requirements. Have elementary teachers specialize in fields, such as math and language.
  6. Schools organized and managed to attract high quality candidates into teaching and to enable them to do their very best work.There should be a career ladder for teachers and school leaders combined with strong incentives for teachers to get better and better at the work. More time should be spent working together in teams to improve school performance, less teaching. Compensation should not be based on degrees and seniority.
  7. An effective system of career and technical education and training, built on very high level of student academic performance. It should have highly qualified instructors, modern equipment, and a strong apprentice component; a training wage; and strong employer involvement.
  8. Leadership development system that develops leaders who can manage such systems effectively.Only those who have been fine teachers, team leaders and mentors can go on to leadership positions and they must have experience in low-income and minority schools to move up.
  9. Coherent governance system capable of implementing effective systems.Built on professional model. The system sets the rules, provides resources, but teachers and principals have professional discretion, and accountability runs up and down

Tucker emphasized that many of these nine developments take 20 or 30 years to implement in other countries and require a long-term commitment to systemic change.

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About The Author

Len Lazarick

Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.

1 Comment

  1. charlie hayward

    I agree with much of this testimony. Among a number of points of disagreement, however, is the following statement: “The state Department of Education was not held accountable by the legislature for its failure to hold districts accountable for their performance.”

    Accountability for spending budgets and maintaining agency accountability belongs to governors and their executive agencies. O’Malley during his tenure kept a MFR (Managing for Results) program, which he claimed was a great success. O’Malley’s claims are unsupportable regarding the Thornton Commission recommendations. Moreover, the state’s budget formulation process mandates “Performance Measures” which are being compiled and tracked while in substance they track the wrong measures and are largely unused by the legislature in budget hearings leading up to annual appropriations. They should be scrapped or used as intended, not just for Department of Education but the entire Executive Branch.

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