Dueling Education Policy Reports: Maryland #1 in Spending Money, Educating Kids Not So Much

Two reports studying Maryland public schools were released this week, and both tell vastly different stories about the condition of public education in the state.
Today Education Week released its annual state rankings, and for the fifth year in a row Maryland topped the list, with a grade of B+.  Of course, this will set off the predictable vapid nostrums about “investments” and “progress is a choice” from Governor O’Malley and the Democratic machine.  However, as has been pointed out ad nauseam, the methodology of the Education Week rankings is flawed.  Last year, George Liebmann of the Calvert Institute, noted:

Gov. Martin O’Malley has taken on the road to Charlotte, N.C., and to Iowa his claim that Maryland’s schools are “Number One.” The annual ratings by Education Week are held to justify the hundreds of millions in additional Thornton Commission spending that are at the root of state and local budget problems. These funds have been squandered on the rapidly escalating costs of “Cadillac” health insurance policies for teachers and on lockstep seniority increases not accorded other public and private work forces — while the state maintains certification requirements of 30 credit hours of mind-numbing education courses that exclude about 95 percent of its college graduates from the public teaching force.
 A look at the components of the Education Week index refutes the notion that the O’Malley administration has gotten value for its money. The index does not measure the outputs of Maryland schools but their inputs. Seventeen percent of the index is based on each state’s level of parental education and income. Seventeen percent is founded on assessment of bureaucratic “transitions and alignment.” Sixteen percent of the rating is based on the level of state school spending and equality among districts: The fewer the districts, the better. Seventeen percent is based on various measures bundled together as “chance for success” (the state leads in the percentage of graduates taking Advanced Placement examinations, but this reflects the education and wealth of parents more than school performance). Sixteen percent of the index is based on the credentialing and centralized control of teachers.
Only one component of the index actually measures student performance: 17 percent of the index is based on student test performance, but only 39 percent of this (or 7 percent of the total) is based on actual achievement, what the public should most care about; while 39 percent is based on “improvement” over time and 22 percent on improvement over time in test results of underprivileged children. (Maryland’s performance in this last area is abysmal.)

Abysmal indeed.  When you dig into Education Week’s state-level data, all that glitters in the number one ranking is not gold.  As I reported in 2011, the previous Education Week report showed that Maryland ranked dead last in 8th grade math poverty gap, 34th in 8th grade math poverty gap change, and 35th in 4th grade reading poverty gap.  The latest edition of the report shows the state is still failing its most vulnerable students.  Maryland still ranks 50thin 8th grade math poverty gap, the state dropped 10 spots to 44th in 8th grade math poverty gap change, and fell four spots to 38thin 4th grade reading poverty gap.
Keep in mind Maryland implemented the Thornton Bridge to Excellence spending mandates over a decade ago to address these very disparities.  However, more than half of the increased Thornton spending went not to the classroom but to teacher salaries and benefits. 
The other report, released earlier this week, the State Policy Report Card from Student’s First, led by former Washington, DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, tells another tale.  In that report, Maryland ranks 17th and received a grade of D.  The Student’s First report looks at state education policies from a different perspective, it “does not assess student achievement, school quality, or teacher performance, but rather the policy environments that affect those outcomes.” 
Within Student First’s three policy pillars, Maryland ranks as follows: Elevate Teaching: 20th, Empower Parents: 15th, Spend Wisely Governs Well: 20th.
Maryland’s two Fs and C+ on the Empower Parents pillar, and F on the Make Teacher Pensions Portable and Fair pillar, confirms Liebmann’s criticism of the Education Week methodology, and Maryland’s centralized education policy environment.
I hold no hope that the powers that be in Annapolis will look at this data and change policy.  In fact, their continued political existence is based on ignoring this reality, and kowtowing to the education lobby.  Just look at the Maryland Education Association’s massive amount of political contributions to the Maryland Democratic Party and Maryland Democratic politicians.  Outside of gambling MSEA spent the second largest amount of money lobbying the General Assembly last year.   

MSEA Contributions  The politicians in Annapolis understand the message from their special interest masters: keep the spigot of state education spending flowing. 
Real reform entails educational choice and allowing the money to follow the student not the inadequate schools that fail them, and yes spending less money, because we know that isn’t the answer to the problem.   To do this however, would mean Governor O’Malley abandoning a key 2016 marketing slogan for his Democratic presidential primary run.  And, we just can’t have that now can we, no matter how many more underprivileged students get the shaft.

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