Dana Beyer, MD

After five difficult years for public education in the County, things are beginning to look up. Maryland has been rated the best public education system in the country for five consecutive years, with a B+ rating by Education Week. Funding cuts, brought about by the Great Recession, are now a thing of the past. Teachers, who had to share in the sacrifice and do without COLAs and step increases, are finally being offered raises. Class sizes, increased over the past few years, have stabilized. Very low interest rates have allowed some capital improvements and modernizations to proceed, though there is much more that needs to be done.

We are still faced with serious problems, leading with the persistent achievement gap, no movement on universal pre-K education, and lagging school modernization and new construction. This year Montgomery County, with 17% of the state’s student population, is receiving only 11% of the capital improvement funds, a very familiar situation for our county school system vis-à-vis the state.

But the main problem – the gap in scores between majority and minority students - has many causes. Serious efforts have been made to rectify the problem, but since certain fundamental issues have been marginalized, the approaches have been flawed.

We must realize that achievement in school is not an isolated phenomenon. The most critical factor is a supportive and financially secure home, and in an economy where growing inequality forces more to struggle even when working multiple jobs, the nurturing home environment will suffer. This is a very serious problem when one third of students in the county receive free lunches. Teachers are not social workers, and they can’t be expected to solve society’s problems.

We have learned from the cognitive science revolution of the past two decades that the most important phase of development begins in utero and lasts through age five. Without committed efforts to improving the lives of young children and this includes the institution of universal pre-K education for young children from age 3-4, the achievement gap will remain.

Critics talk about the impossibility of funding such universal programs, but in a world where interest rates are so low that money is virtually free, it is a shame that we aren’t making the effort. We can also re-engineer our K-12 system, phasing out 12th grade which most students spend either in college-level classes or just bide their time until graduation, and replace it with a gap year or community service. A national draft for community service would be preferable, to rebuild national cohesion, but short of that we can encourage our students to move sooner to college or technical schools, apprenticeship training, or take the time to serve. The money saved can be used to fund a year or more of pre-K.

Before we can seriously consider such a radical change in the structure of our educational system, we can start small, and we have with the Governor providing $5.5 million to fund two innovative programs -- the Digital Learning Innovation Fund and the Early College Innovation Fund. Both will increase the readiness of our students for higher education, while tapping into their passion for and love of technology, and increase flexibility in individual career pathways. This rethinking of education for a new economy, one marked by the growth of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and other forms of distance learning, and programs that encourage students to focus intensely in their area of interest, such as coding skills, is a necessity for the new economic world.

Fundamentally, K-12 schools should be providing a liberal education, built on the Common Core, to prepare students for all contingencies. Our obsessive emphasis on test scores is misplaced and counter-productive. We must liberate teachers to re-instill the pure love of learning.

Together – with a willingness to be flexible and creative, to buck tradition and allow the next generation to inspire us with their passions – we can recreate an America first in science, technology and liberal literacy here in Maryland.