Kirwan commission issues preliminary report

A governor-appointed commission, looking into school funding in Maryland and ways to use that money in the most effective and efficient way possible, issued a preliminary report Monday, just two days ahead of the opening of the 2018 legislative session.

Summary of the Report’s Main Recommendations

The report opens with a comparison between Maryland students and those in other states and other nations, relying almost entirely on test scores in math (numeracy), reading (literacy), and science knowledge. The word “PARCC,” for instance, occurs 10 times, the word “PISA” six. And although the commissioners heard “testimony from students and representatives from advocacy groups in special education, arts, health, child care and prekindergarten, teachers, superintendents, and boards of education,” the preliminary report includes no reference, specifically, to school programs in the fine arts or music.

As shown in the graphical table of contents above, the report does underscore the importance of training teachers well, paying them well, and developing strong programs on both ends of the pre-kindergarten through 20th-year educational trajectory for Maryland students.

Recommendations include a strong career training program in the public schools, including possibly providing a path to an associate’s degree or other industry-recognized credential for students who don’t want to attend college. They include making adjustments that will effectively set the bar for high school graduation according to test scores and other “snapshot” metrics that reliably predict college readiness, using the narrowly focused and possibly overrated Common Core areas of “algebra I, statistics, algebra II” in one instance.


Algebra II? Really? Not only would I be more than happy if our algebra I students were learning actual algebra, but why is a student’s ability to divide one polynomial by another more important than, say, enjoyment of life? The report mentions algebra II once and the idea of enjoyment twice, but only in reference to forming a “grand alliance” with key education partners or in terms of enjoying the support of key stakeholders in education. Here’s a summary of how often the report discusses the following concepts:

  • Happiness: 0
  • Joy: 0
  • Love: 0

I’m pretty sure when I taught seventh graders, the only important thing I taught them was to enjoy school, to love learning. I am almost completely confident they forgot every chemical formula I taught them unless it was reinforced with later instruction in their lives. But they left knowing that school was fun, that learning about stuff would bring understanding and an appreciation of the beauty around them in the world, that picking oneself up after a fall was a good idea. And when I taught undergraduates, if I could get them to see the beauty in the protein synthesis process, I counted myself lucky. As for enzyme dynamics specifically, some of them got it, and some of them didn’t. Par for the course.

In that sense, the report misses the point entirely. It bemoans the fact that elementary teachers aren’t trained specifically in math, science, or the humanities but instead take low-level courses in those disciplines and fill their college schedules with useless courses in educational psychology. That’s how it happens, of course, but it would be appropriate if those college courses would train teachers to get kids to love school. Which they don’t, of course.

As much as I might like to fill the teaching ranks and surround myself with top graduates from schools—and appreciate that this is the norm in countries like Finland and Singapore—the effort will be wasted in the US. Why would American moms and dads want to spend their day in a K-12 school if they’ve got the brains for cancer research, the personality for high-volume sales, the appreciation of quality workmanship enough to make someone’s kitchen floor beautiful, the training to play the once-unplayable piano concertos of Tchaikovsky, the logic to make a whole server farm sing and dance in service to mankind? I would prefer, instead, to foster programs that bring these people back into the schools, perhaps in an advisory or consulting role, to show students that learning and mastery will bear fruit throughout their lives.

Schools, with all the testing this report puts on a pedestal, have turned the teaching profession into one that involves much more administrative red tape than actual teaching, much more testing than actual learning, and much more test prep than any actual evaluation of progress. Formative testing, which the report handles in a fashion that is too glancing in my opinion, isn’t actually used anymore to evaluate students’ progress in any unit of the curriculum; it’s used to predict how ready they are to take the end-of-course test, which will be used for school accountability. Those accountability tests are another huge difference between the US and Finland, a fact the report doesn’t even mention while correctly identifying other differences between our two countries. In so doing, the report has an air of cherry-picking the data from Finland its commissioners want to include while excluding other data that has a significant bearing on our understanding of the PISA results.

In one sense, we made the laws in the US that way, and reversing that trend will be hard. And of course, school funding in Maryland needs to increase. But reversing trends this report suggests we continue would be a better place to start, I think. I admit, it calls for the promotion of after-school programs at high-poverty schools, but if that’s going to be math tutoring (the report also calls for a boost in tutoring forces at those schools), we might as well spend the money to fix holes in the wall or make the water drinkable out of the fountains, since that would help kids enjoy school more, which might convince a few more of the smart ones to become teachers.

When I see school buildings that aren’t nice places to come to work, when I water down a science curriculum so that kids “at the margin” (between basic and proficient) have a chance of getting a few more points on the end-of-course test, when most of the people who fill my day from dawn to dusk (teenagers) truly would rather be somewhere else, I can tell you right away: We’re going to have trouble getting good people to go into teaching. I believe one of the primary reasons more minority kids don’t go into teaching (a fact the report correctly draws our attention to) is that they project themselves into a work environment resembling the dilapidated schools they attend as children and steer as far away from that as they’re able.

Turn schools into work environments that nurture rather than berate current employees—the ones who are already there, actually in the schools, not the ones smart people might wish we had in our schools—and we’ll get enough good ones to fill the ranks. This report fails to focus our attention where it might actually help those PISA (international) or NAEP (national) scores a little. I would rather set goals right here in the US, right here in Maryland, than be compared constantly with Shanghai or Massachusetts. I would rather make happy kids in schools in Baltimore City than compare those students to the ones in Bethesda.

Comparisons between states, countries, schools, or ethnic or socioeconomic groups, using mainly narrowly focused test scores, will lead us onto a dead end. I’m not even sure American kids want to be more like those in Singapore, but they didn’t mention that as a goal in testimony to the commission. Keep our eyes on the right targets in the final report.

A few very good points

The report’s focus on literacy is much stronger than our focus has been in the past. If an increased focus on literacy for Maryland students is the only good thing to come out of this commission, it would be a win for everyone.

The report also puts a significant spotlight on educational pathways that do not include study at a four-year college or university. As such, it is very strong in that it offers options for all students, inclusive of everyone, not just those students who plan to attend college.

Finally, the report’s overall inclusion of community-based partners in education is a selling point. On these pages, including our original mission statement, written when I first incorporated Voxitatis in Illinois, back in 2002, I have always stressed that one way to improve schools was to have constructive dialog between three vertices of an equilateral triangle:

  • our students (including those with special needs, the poor ones, the rich ones, those who want to paint for a living);
  • our schools, including teachers, administrators, support staff, unions, public and private, traditional and charter; and
  • our communities, including business both local and international, religious organizations, sports clubs, politicians, and families.”

The Kirwan report shifts the focus a little to include wraparound services for families, especially those with young children, but the emphasis on the engagement of students, schools, and communities is admirable. Let’s hope it works.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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