Laslo Boyd: A Change in Educational Leadership

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When I talked to outgoing Maryland School Superintendent Lillian Lowery last week, she described her new position as head of Future Ready Columbus as the opportunity of a lifetime.   After succeeding the legendary Nancy Grasmick as head of Maryland Public Schools and steering the state through an often challenging transition to the more rigorous standards associated with the Common Core, she leaves with an impressive records of accomplishments and a quiet confidence that should serve her well in her new role.

In our conversation, Lowery had only praise for her predecessor.  Still it’s clear that her style is very different than Grasmick’s whom she described as a “force.”  No one in Maryland would argue with that assessment.  When I asked, she told me that she had been too busy with the many challenges of the job to worry about the shadow cast by anyone else. 

In discussing her own operating style, she put particular emphasis on her close working relationship with local school leaders and her success in getting them deeply involved in the process of transforming standards.   Change, we would all agree, is rarely easy, but, in Lowery’s view, Maryland has had a smoother path than most other states.

Her three years as State Superintendent have been characterized by a number of major changes.  Instituting the new curricular standards resulting from the Common Core provoked an initial backlash but now seems largely accepted.   That was followed by concerns about the new PARCC test (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career).  Aligning the curriculum with the assessment measure has now been successfully completed  according to Lowery. 

The new standards  focus on assessing whether students can demonstrate higher order thinking and analytical skills rather than rote recitation of facts.  Even if the process has bumps that still need to be addressed, it is an essential change to ensure that Maryland’s students can compete in the global marketplace

Lowery also talked about the importance of the flexibility waiver that the state has under No Child Left Behind. It allows much more attention to the specific needs of individual students and, ironically in light of some critic’s assertions, enhances local control of education.

Marylanders are used to having their public schools ranked at or near the top nationally.  The State has been fortunate to have strong educational leadership and, for the most part, governors and legislators who were willing to provide the necessary financial support. 

Larry Hogan, still in his first year as governor, hasn’t established a clear pattern yet.  He has held back some educational funding and seems mostly interested in expanding charter schools in the state.  How his position on public schools plays out in the rest of his term will be one of the key issues worth following closely.

The other major initiative that Lowery discussed with me is the progress that has been made in early childhood learning and development.   She noted that Maryland is one of the first states to put all the relevant programs under the direction of a single agency.   She takes particular pride in the significant expansion of pre-K programs in the State and in the growing number of partnerships with foundations and private providers.

As important as its advocates have always felt early childhood education to be, its significance has become even greater as more rigorous standards are instituted for all grades.  Here the focus is on social/behavioral learning skills such as listening, taking turns, evaluating, not on worksheets or flash cards. The importance of starting school with a solid basis of preparation, of not starting behind and falling further behind each year, is critical to school success. 

There is of course still much to be done, including funding continued expansion of pre-K opportunities.  Lowery clearly sees this initiative as the most important one undertaken during her term and one of the keys to future success in the State.

The Maryland State Department of Education issued for the first time this year the results of a Kindergarten Readiness Assessment.  The results underscore the importance of early childhood education as well as providing a baseline for the ongoing program.  And in a time when so much of the news coming out of Baltimore is bad, students from the City exceeded the state standard on the assessment. 

Her new job in Columbus, Ohio involves a public-private partnership focused on making significant improvements in local education and providing a model of collaboration.  Major stakeholders—elected officials as well as corporate leaders—are committed to a comprehensive approach that addresses all the factors that can contribute to educational success. 

You’ve certainly heard language like that before, but it may be more doable at a community level than at a state or national one.  Lowery brings an extensive background in education, experience in key leadership positions, and an unmistakable commitment to the task.  Her job there will be more hands-on than that of a state school superintendent, but it’s not hard to see why she views it as such a great opportunity.

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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.