Maryland lawmakers and education leaders say they are looking forward to a reinvigoration of the state’s public school system with the announcement of a new state superintendent of schools, Mohammed Choudhury.

But lawmakers also warn that Choudhury is undertaking a difficult job, especially coming from out-of-state.

A San Antonio schools administrator, Choudhury will start his new job in Maryland on July 1.

“I think anybody stepping into this role will have a really tough job because of where the [Maryland State Department of Education] is at and the lack of trust with the legislature,” said Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), the Maryland House majority leader who is also a former public school history teacher and current associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Several school districts in the state are larger than Choudhury’s current home, the San Antonio Independent School District, which has 49,000 students. Montgomery County — the largest school district in the state — is more than three times the size of San Antonio ISD with 160,000 students, while Prince George’s County has 132,000 students and Baltimore City has 78,000.

“It’s a much larger scale than I think he’s used to,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

But someone coming from out of state could also bring an infusion of new energy and new ideas, observers said.

“I’m looking forward to how [Choudhury] is going to help us grow the profession of teaching — it has been a struggle for us to continue to find qualified teachers in all areas,” said Kelly Griffith, president of Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland.

Choudhury is currently the associate superintendent of strategy, talent and innovation in San Antonio, where he has received national attention for what he calls “diverse by design” schools. These schools are based on an enrollment system that ensures low-income children are not filtered out of schools when they become popular with middle-class families.

Del. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s) said that Choudhury’s background — a person of color who is the son of immigrants — make him a great candidate, and he hopes that Choudhury will focus on the racial disparities throughout the state’s schools.

“What I would like to see him focus on is the racial inequities and racial disparities that exist between students of color and their white counterparts in certain areas of our state,” he said.

More than 90% of students in San Antonio’s Independent School District are economically disadvantaged and nearly all are Mexican-American. When Choudhury joined the school district in 2017, he was tasked with redesigning public schools in a way that would retain families who could afford to move to charter schools, private schools and public schools in other districts.

Choudhury created school models that not only had curriculums designed to retain those students and families, but also socioeconomic controls on admission lotteries to ensure that students with the highest needs would get spots in those new schools.

Instead of primarily relying on the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, Choudhury created four “census blocks,” depending on factors such as single-parent status, home ownership rates, family income and parents’ highest education level, according to EdWeek.

The highest block represented students with the most stability while the lowest block constituted most impoverished students. Choudhury used these socioeconomic tiers to ensure that the new schools had students from varied socioeconomic levels.

In 2019, Texas state legislators incorporated Choudhury’s socioeconomic block system into a comprehensive school finance reform bill, with a few modifications, according to the San Antonio Report.

Shamoyia Gardiner, the executive director of Strong Schools Maryland, a network of grass-roots education advocates focused on education reform, said she was excited that Choudhury understands there are different levels of poverty.

Relying primarily on “direct certification,” or a process that automatically certifies income-eligible students to receive free or reduced price school meals based on their families participation on other assistance programs, to calculate poverty has missed a lot of students in Maryland, Gardiner said.

Some families are eager to get off other federal assistance programs, so “this produced pockets of concentrated poverty in which students from [immigrant and mixed status family] backgrounds who had high needs were attending schools but were not showing up in the count, so their schools were losing federal dollars,” Gardiner said.

Revisions to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform bill that passed this year require MSDE to submit a report by November reassessing how the state uses poverty measures in direct certification and setting a timetable for incorporating Medicaid data.

Before going to San Antonio in 2017, Choudhury was director of transformation and innovation for the Dallas Independent School District, where he developed 35 new schools in which educators redesigned the campus. Like in San Antonio, Choudhury helped use census data to divide Dallas students into four socioeconomic tiers to get a more nuanced picture of students with the most needs in the district, according to the Dallas Observer. He began his career as a classroom teacher in Los Angeles, where he grew up.

Although Choudhury has received national attention for his innovative efforts to diversify schools, addressing poverty and economic integration should not be characterized as “reform,” but seen as foundational to what Maryland is working towards, Gardiner said.

Choudhury was not available for an interview for this article, said Lora Rakowski, the spokeswoman for MSDE.

Because the outgoing state superintendent Karen B. Salmon served an extra year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Choudhury’s initial term will only be three years long instead of the typical four years. State Board of Education President Clarence Crawford said the shorter term was not an impediment to finding top candidates, as the position drew in 55 applicants and yielded four finalists in the end.

Choudhury will earn $310,000 a year as Maryland state superintendent, according to his contract, which is $35,000 more than what Salmon earns now. Salmon’s salary increased $39,000 from the base salary she was offered at the start of her term in 2016, according to her contracts.

Choudhury’s higher salary is most likely commensurate with many other states and large school districts, said Kalman Hettleman, a member of the Kirwan Commission, a multi-year initiative to develop a decade-long education reform plan. “If that’s what the market is, then we should pay for it.”

There is a lot of competition for good superintendents across the country and you have to pay high salaries to get good people, Luedtke echoed. “It’s just the reality of the job market,” he said.

Challenges, but opportunities

Lawmakers and educational leaders pointed to the bureaucracy of MSDE and a sweeping 230-page education reform bill that was just codified into law this year as potential challenges for a new state superintendent. But they also saw opportunities for him to improve the education system in the state.

The Maryland State Department of Education has floundered over the past several years, Luedtke said. Luedtke hopes Choudhury “understands that he’s going to need to essentially rebuild a state agency that’s been gutted by terrible leadership for the past few years.”

MSDE is “terribly bureaucratic” and does not provide meaningful guidance on evidence-based practices or monitor local districts’ funding plans, Hettleman said.

“He has some rebuilding work to do — not just within [the Maryland State Department of Education], but in its relationship with the legislature,” Luedtke said.

In 2020, Luedtke introduced an emergency bill that would require Senate confirmation for the state superintendent of schools, who is appointed by the State Board of Education with no input from the legislature. Luedtke’s bill did not pass and an iteration of the bill was introduced by Washington this year, but it also faltered.

“We didn’t see [Salmon] much in Annapolis,” Pinsky said. “I hope [Choudhury] doesn’t see the legislature as an opponent and hopefully we can collaborate.”

“I hope he understands that he’s accountable to the State Board of Education and not necessarily to the governor,” Pinsky continued.

It will be important for the new state superintendent to empower MSDE’s staff and create a team-based environment to uplift morale, which has been diminishing for a while, Luedtke continued.

Hettleman emphasized that the failings of MSDE are more institutional than individual, and said there should be an independent audit of MSDE’s management capacity, or whether there is enough staff and resources available to do what MSDE is supposed to do. Leadership also matters, and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has been “at best indifferent” with education, evidenced by his veto of the Blueprint last year, Hettleman said.

But “somebody’s got to lead, and we can do better,” Hettleman continued. “Notwithstanding all the complex obstacles, the state superintendent should be a leader and move us in the right direction.” To Hettleman, MSDE has not had the same energy and boldness since Nancy Grasmick, who retired in 2011 after leading the agency for two decades.

Regardless of the current circumstances of MSDE, however, “ultimately we want MSDE to be successful,” Gardiner said. “A lot of these things that we call challenges are, for [Choudhury], opportunities to do things better and to totally change how the institution is regarded throughout the state,” Gardiner said.

“There’s a lot of untapped power in MSDE that is primed, waiting for someone who’s excited to take the helm and get things going,” she continued.

A ‘Blueprint’ for change

Stepping into the superintendent role, Choudhury will have to familiarize himself with Maryland education history and policies, but especially the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the multi-billion-dollar education reform plan intended to close student achievement gaps and transform the state’s education system over the next decade.

“For a new state superintendent coming from out of state, it’s going to be very important for that person to learn the history of education in the state of Maryland, but also to be an active listener with superintendents and to collaborate with superintendents,” Griffith of Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland said.

Simply a commitment to implementing the Blueprint is the first step to its success, Luedtke said. When Choudhury publicly accepted the state superintendent position in late May, he stressed the importance of the Blueprint.

“With the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future serving as a guide for MSDE and every county district, the state leaders have shown a remarkable commitment to the hard work that’s necessary to bridge gaps and ensure every student has a shot to be successful,” Choudhury said the virtual state board meeting.

Gardiner of Strong Schools said she was “really excited about the way [Choudhury] has come out explicitly calling out the Blueprint as a positive thing,” taking this as a sign he will be a strong champion in its implementation.

The next step would be developing a good working relationship with and local school systems and the Accountability and Implementation Board (AIB), an independent, seven-member panel that will oversee the implementation of the Blueprint, “because for the Blueprint to work, everybody’s got to be pulling together,” Luedtke said.

One of the main motivations behind establishing an AIB was lawmakers’ lack of trust in MSDE’s ability to implement reforms, Luedtke said.

But “hopefully the reality we’re walking into now does not have that history of tension,” Gardiner said.

The Blueprint will not be successful without strong action by MSDE, Hettleman echoed. “There’s no way in the world that the Accountability and Implementation Board can work if MSDE doesn’t do its job. The board can provide oversight and help to navigate some of the political landmines, but MSDE has to be strong if there is to be any kind of implementation of the goals of the Blueprint,” he said.

The presiding officers of the General Assembly and the governor recently announced their appointees to the AIB nominating committee, which will identify nine prospective appointees to the AIB. Hogan will then select seven of the candidates as appointees to the board, subject to Senate confirmation.

Recovering from the pandemic

The first order of business for the new state superintendent should be to carry out a thorough, data-driven assessment of where students are after more than a year of a global pandemic, Pinsky said, and to figure out a plan for returning the school culture back to one that preceded the pandemic.

Gardiner said it’s important to go one step further and “build back better.” Choudhury seemed to agree at the state board meeting where he was appointed.

“Being one of the top states [in education] doesn’t mean there aren’t any gaps. It certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement,” he said.

“We are only as strong as our most struggling student; we are only as strong as our most struggling educator; we are only as strong as our most confused and frustrated parents. And so, that will be my barometer for success,” he continued.

Choudhury’s term will cover two governors, as Hogan is term-limited and must step down in early 2023. Managing that transition will be important and may serve as another challenge to a new state superintendent, Luedtke said.

In light of these institutional challenges, most agreed that although they had not met Choudhury yet, he seemed like a promising leader.

“We need a break from the past, and whether that person is from in-state or out-of-state, it’s important that that person bring a fresh approach,” Hettleman said. “I think there’s such a history of weakness [within MSDE] that it’s worth rolling the dice a little.”