Maryland's uneducated high school graduates

Originally Published in the Baltimore Sun

Nancy Grasmick will retire in June.

The accolades pouring in upon her announcement formed an instant hagiography of the woman who for 20 years has led Maryland's public schools.

"Dr. Grasmick leaves a luminous legacy and because of her vision, every student in the state will have an opportunity to achieve academic success," wrote Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, in a statement typical of those about her.

The swelling tide of students who graduate from state public high schools without basic reading or math skills should halt her beatification and shatter the myth of the state's unparalleled public schools, however.

Yes, on the surface she performed miracles. Under her leadership, Maryland won three consecutive first-place rankings for its K-12 public education from Education Week. Average per-pupil spending rose 35 percent in constant dollars from 1989-90 to 2007-08, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Last summer, Maryland won one of 12 federal grants worth up to $250 million to improve the state's lowest-performing schools.

Dig deeper, and the truth comes out.

Many state high school graduates cannot create a sentence from a fragment and can't solve problems with fractions or long division. Some cannot add and subtract whole numbers. Many students run out of financial aid before they take one college-level course. That is one of the reasons Baltimore City Community College (BCCC) is launching a new program in the fall designed to shorten the time needed to complete remedial classes. One piece of good news: BCCC has found that those who complete the developmental program overwhelmingly stick with school.

Isaiah Pittman, 25, is one of those students who faces a long road to graduation. He tried BCCC once before but dropped out to work. I met him on a day he and his remedial English classmates studied how to correct sentence fragments, including this one: "To go any place in the city." His textbook: "The Least You Should Know About English." He said he graduated from Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County.

Becoming a nurse is his goal, but chances are he won't make it, as about 60 percent of his peers won't return after a year. Of his high school experience, he told me, "a lot of teachers were young and cared more about being friends with the students than being their teacher."

Observers of local schools sadly won't be surprised by Mr. Pittman's situation. But it's not just students at BCCC — where 80 percent of all incoming students need some type of remedial help — that have problems.

At the Community College of Baltimore County, 74 percent of incoming students need some type of remedial help. At Montgomery College, 65 percent to 70 percent of recent high school graduates and about 40 percent of new adult students need some developmental education when they start. About 54 percent of all math classes offered at the state's largest community college are remedial.

Many students at community colleges take a break to work between high school and college. With time, subjects are forgotten — but the numbers for those going directly from high school to all types of colleges in Maryland are terrible, too.

According to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, 56 percent of those students need some form of developmental education, and 53 percent need it in math. Ten years ago, 47 percent needed some type of remedial help, 39 percent in math. The bill for taxpayers is $90 million annually. That figure does not count the millions spent by individual students who must use financial aid to pay to learn things they should have known cold before donning their mortar boards.

Evidence from the state's flagship school is bleak as well. Jerome Dancis, associate math professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, counted 22 sections of remedial math in the fall of 2009. He also counted 33 sections of college credit pre-calculus and algebra, which used to be considered high school subjects.

Worse, his research shows knowledge of basic math for students of all ethnic groups in Maryland has been dropping over the past decade.

Maryland is far from alone in this phenomenon. As the 2010 documentary "Waiting for Superman" showed, per-pupil spending in U.S. schools has more than doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars in the past 40 years, while student achievement has stagnated. The more recent documentary "Race to Nowhere" says the University of California at Berkeley — that state's flagship school — must provide remedial education to almost half of incoming students.

The question for Maryland is: How many more Isaiah Pittmans will the state graduate before he and thousands of his peers file criminal fraud charges against those who signed their diplomas? How well would Ms. Grasmick's "luminous legacy" stand up in court?