This op-ed, written by MarylandCAN board member and pastor Michael Phillips, was featured in the Center Maryland.

As a faith leader, I am deeply committed to my calling to shepherd members of my community toward a life lived in our shared ideals. For me, these ideals include compassion, service, opportunity and honesty. We must work together to deepen community, to make a conscious, intentional effort to build on the connections between us and resist the pull of the often shallow and disingenuous responses to complex issues that face our community. Here in Baltimore and throughout Maryland, we must trust one another.

Which is why I am deeply troubled that the General Assembly of Maryland has introduced HB 978, the Protect Our Schools Act of 2017, which is a dishonest name for what the bill seeks to achieve. It does not protect our schools. It allows schools that consistently fail our students academically to continue doing so without real accountability or opportunities for improvement.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Maryland is required to submit a plan that includes the indicators by which it will evaluate its schools. Some of these indicators can be non-academic, but some must be academic, and the academic indicators must be given “in the aggregate much greater weight” as compared to the school quality indicator. Intuitively, this makes sense. Schools are, and should be, measured by how effectively they educate our children academically.

But this bill, which is being hurried through the legislature far in advance of when Maryland will submit its state ESSA plan, limits the combined total weight of academic indicators — particularly test scores — to no more than 55 percent of a school’s final rating. That is to say if passed, this bill would limit how much weight students’ academic success will have on a school’s overall rating and will limit how schools use assessment data to measure a school’s efficacy.

What does this mean? And what does it communicate about what we hold our schools accountable for? Under this bill, a school could receive an adequate rating while chronically failing students academically. What’s more, schools like these would not be subject to vital state interventions, called for by federal law, that could turn the tides for these schools.

A high-quality education matters. Students who are molded by a strong education, with high standards, effective teachers and individual and school-level accountability, grow to become successful, thriving adults. Children who remain trapped in poor schools graduate with few professional choices, a lower standard of living and a lower life expectancy than their better educated peers. There are ample studies to validate this, but any time spent in Baltimore among some of our struggling communities drives the point home.

If these are the stakes – and they are – how can we ensure that our young people are lifted by their schools instead of thwarted by them? At least one critical lever must be assessing the quality of our schools and the education they provide through our students’ demonstrated skills and knowledge. To be clear, no one is arguing for increased testing, nor the dreaded “teaching to the test.” But we cannot support struggling schools and the students in them if we cannot identify areas for improvement and provide focused attention, resources and problem-solving toward these areas.

This has implications not only for our schools but for our young people, as well. Our obligation to our children – as parents, role models, mentors and advocates – is to prepare them for the life that awaits them. We do our children a great disservice when we allow them to believe they are receiving a strong education at a high standard when, in truth, we are sending them into the world ill-prepared to develop into the strong, critical, passionate community leaders that we need in cities such as Baltimore.


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