‘Normal wasn’t good enough’: Md.’s new school superintendent lays out an ambitious plan

Mohammed Choudhury, Maryland’s new state school superintendent, has spent his first few weeks on the job talking with school leaders, and he talked with WTOP about reform, recovery from the pandemic, and taking over at “an exciting time.”

Choudhury was appointed as the successor to Dr. Karen Salmon, who stayed one year beyond her four-year contract as Maryland dealt with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, to oversee the education of more than 882,000 students in the 24 school districts across the state. He previously served as an associate superintendent at the San Antonio Independent School District, in Texas.

When Choudhury was appointed to his post in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan issued a statement saying Choudhury was “nationally recognized for his groundbreaking work and leadership on education reform.”

The new superintendent said he likes to look beyond the way things have been done in the past, going so far as to talk about one possible “silver lining” to the impact of the pandemic.

New ideas in education, Choudhury said, are often dismissed as impossible. When the pandemic hit, “overnight, with the stroke of a pen, X, Y and Z rules went out the door and we came up with new rules,” said Choudhury. And those new rules, he said, can “better serve students.”

Reform ahead in Maryland

Choudhury is taking over as the state moves ahead with the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a 10-year, multibillion-dollar effort to expand pre-kindergarten programs, raise teacher pay, add money for schools with high concentrations of poverty and create an accountability board to oversee implementation of the reforms.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, chair of the Maryland Senate’s committee on education, said he’s eager to see how Choudhury works to implement education reform and “how faithful” Choudhury’s approach will be to the intent of the legislation.

Choudhury called it “an exciting time,” and said of the effort at sweeping reform, “no other state — I can confidently say that — has passed a 300-page law that is dedicated to fully looking at every educational aspect of its state and charging its stakeholders to make it happen.”

Learning loss

Choudhury said Maryland’s 24 school systems need state support as they try to address learning loss, but that he doesn’t want to concentrate only on what students may have missed while learning from home.

Educators, he said, have “to both remediate and accelerate at the same time. You can’t just simply say, ‘We are going to make up everything that the students did not get.’ You must also move them forward.”

Chaudhury’s goal is to speak with all 24 school systems, and said he’s had introductory calls with about 10 school district leaders so far.

Curriculum

As school systems around the country are facing challenges over how history and issues surrounding equity are taught, Choudhury said he doesn’t expect it to become an issue “at scale.”

Choudhury said “the Maryland state curriculum has been recognized nationally” as setting a high bar for student learning, and while he expected some local challenges, he doesn’t foresee widespread objections to what is covered and how it’s covered in Maryland schools.

Expecting excellence

Looking ahead to next year, Choudhury said, “I don’t expect rigor to ever take a hit, whether it was in remote learning or in hybrid learning,” but lesson plans that might have introduced five new concepts in a week might have to be adapted: “Maybe you need to adapt and go deeper on two things for that week.”

Choudhury said he knows that people are eager to get “back to normal,” but doesn’t like that expression.

“I think normal wasn’t good enough,” Choudhury said. “I can pull data from the pre-pandemic days and show you how there were gaps in student learning.”

“As we enter a post-pandemic world,” he said, “we need to really reimagine and build out school systems that take the best of what we know works” as well as add new elements “that really help kids thrive.”

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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