By Richard Silberman, Writer/Researcher, IBM Communications
When it comes to fixing America’s schools, Nancy Grasmick, Ph.D. — who served 20 years as Maryland State Superintendent of Schools and guided the public education system to great success and recognition — can sum up her advice in a single word: Technology.
“I feel that we’re in a very fortunate time in education with the use of technology and that it will be the catalyst for great positive change in our nation’s schools,” said Dr. Grasmick, who retired in June as the nation’s longest serving appointed superintendent. “I believe technology offers us answers to many of our current problems and provides us with the critical path to educational excellence in the future.”
If there’s anyone whose opinion on this matter carries weight, it’s Dr. Grasmick, who has methodically used technology since the mid-1990s to help raise student performance, narrow the achievement gap between various racial and socioeconomic groups, and improve practically every element of the state’s education system.
Under Dr. Grasmick’s leadership, Maryland public schools have been ranked the nation’s best by Education Week magazine for the past three years. While many factors contributed to this achievement, Dr. Grasmick said that technology was integral to Maryland’s success.
“In Maryland, technology is absolutely embedded in everything we’re doing,” Dr. Grasmick said. “We’ve made it the centerpiece of our long-term strategy to transform education, and the payoff has been remarkable.”
Equal opportunity for students across the state
A foundation of Dr. Grasmick’s strategy is a statewide longitudinal data system that will enable teachers and administrators to efficiently manage and analyze individual student records across multiple years and schools, and make data-driven decisions to improve student achievement.
“It is absolutely critical to be able to look at students as individuals and not as groups,” Dr. Grasmick said. “Technology allows us to focus on individual student learning patterns and make much more immediate and informed placement and intervention decisions.”
During Dr. Grasmick’s tenure, Maryland also deployed online professional development modules for teachers and a comprehensive statewide curriculum, which is also accessible online. “Now we have a sense of equity that every student, in every district, is being exposed to the same high-quality curriculum,” Dr. Grasmick said.
In another successful initiative to bring equal opportunity to all students, Maryland implemented virtual online Advanced Placement (AP) courses, available to students anywhere in the state. Today, Maryland is ranked first in the nation in student AP performance.
Winning the Race to the Top
In 2010, the federal government awarded Maryland a $250 million Race to the Top grant, which rewards education innovation and reform. “Technology contributed to high scores in many areas of the assessment,” Dr. Grasmick said. “It’s one of the critical reasons we received this grant.”
In a key section of the grant application, pertaining to pre-K to 12th grade alignment, Maryland received a perfect score. “Technology has enabled us to create a truly seamless progression from pre-K to 12, particularly as it relates to our use of our curriculum,” Dr. Grasmick said.
Dr. Grasmick has long been a proponent of early childhood education and under her leadership, Maryland has put a focus on this area that goes well beyond what other states have done. All early childhood programs, including childcare licensing and subsidy programs, have been brought under the umbrella of the education department. In addition, Maryland’s curriculum standards for early childhood development are articulated with its K-12 standards.
Dr. Grasmick led the drive for a technology solution to help assess incoming kindergarteners — and it shows the impact of these initiatives. “When we started this program in 2001-02, only 49 percent of the children entering kindergarten were truly ready to assume formal schooling, based on our criteria,” Dr. Grasmick said. “That number is now up to 82 percent.”
From technology skeptic to passionate believer
Dr. Grasmick speaks around the world about using technology to deliver quality education. In 2009, she spoke about producing consistently high-performing students [PDF] at a major IBM Smarter Cities conference in New York City.
Ironically, for such an enthusiastic technology advocate, Dr. Grasmick used to be intimidated by technology and only gradually came around to seeing its importance and value.
“Today I often tell audiences that I don’t think schools will be defined in the future by bricks and mortar — and at times I am more than surprised when I find myself saying that,” Dr. Grasmick said. “I am a great example of a person who was not a believer in technology, who has become a very passionate believer.”
As for Dr. Grasmick’s next chapter, she hasn’t made any final decisions yet, but intends to continue her lifelong career in education. ”And you can be sure wherever I go next that technology is going to be critical to the work that I do,” Dr. Grasmick said.
The Maryland State Department of Education, under the leadership of Nancy Grasmick, Ph.D., has invested over $67 million in innovative technology solutions over the past 15 years in a successful effort to improve student achievement and transform nearly every element of the education system. The department has worked closely with IBM to develop and deploy a wide range of solutions including: a “principal’s desktop” that allows educators to monitor student progress; a STEM Innovation Network to support teachers and students in the key areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); a solution to monitor child care centers and providers throughout Maryland; and a longitudinal data system to track student performance at a micro-level.