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Education 'Miracle' Worker Seeks Success in a Second State

As Mississippi's schools chief, Carey Wright lifted test scores faster than any other state in the nation. Now she needs to show results in Maryland.

Carey Wright, Superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education
To celebrate education, Wright makes a point of visiting all the best-performing schools.
(David Kidd for Governing)
Editor's Note: This article appears in Governing's Summer 2024 magazine. You can subscribe here.

Carey Wright thought she was done. She’d dramatically lifted test scores as Mississippi’s state superintendent, which felt like a fitting capstone to a five-decade career in education. She moved back to her home state of Maryland, ready to retire. But it turned out that Maryland needed her.

The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) was embroiled in a scandal involving the departure of its previous superintendent, Mohammed Choudhury, after a Washington Post investigation alleged he’d created a toxic work environment. Choudhury had been hired to help the state climb its way out of a troubling hole. Student test scores had been sliding for a decade and, as in the rest of the country, the pandemic had made things even worse. In 2021, when Choudhury was brought on, test scores revealed a shocking decline. Just 15 percent of students demonstrated competency in math, with 31 percent showing competency in English. Maryland has made some gains since then, especially in English, but it’s still not performing as well as it once did.

Last fall, the State Board of Education asked Wright to serve as interim superintendent while they conducted a national search. “I really gave it a lot of thought,” she recalls. But in the end, the answer seemed obvious. “If I could help, that’s what I was going to do. I didn’t have to hesitate that long.”

From the start of her interim appointment, Wright said she was promised the board’s full support to make the changes she deemed necessary. She’d been clear that she’d apply for the job on a permanent basis, and it always seemed to be more or less hers to lose. In April, a unanimous vote of the board gave Wright a full term.

In the months since she took the helm at MSDE, reactions from education policy analysts and educators have ranged from cautious optimism to frank relief at her presence. “She is a breath of fresh air, given the challenges we had with the prior superintendent,” says Annette Campbell Anderson, deputy director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. “She has people rallying behind her, including her MSDE staff and board. I think she is really poised to make a difference.”

Carey Wright, Superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education
At a ceremony in Frederick, Wright surprised a math teacher with a $25,000 award for excellence.
(David Kidd for Governing)

Mississippi Miracle

Wright earned a national reputation after what some have termed the Mississippi Miracle: Kids’ math and literacy scores in this historically poor-performing state became among the fastest-improving in the country under her watch, shooting up from the very bottom to the top half of the pack in math and reading. Her focus on evidence-based literacy education and her ability to build relationships with warring factions in a complicated bureaucracy contributed to that success.

Still, despite her credentials and her sterling reputation, Wright faces real challenges in Maryland over the next few years. She also has real opportunities. The state is beginning the rollout of an ambitious new law called the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which will inject nearly $4 billion into state education funding over the next 10 years. The law comes with a slate of investments in teacher career development, a promise of more equitable funding for underserved communities, an expansion of career counseling and technical training for students, and a slate of other reforms and benchmarks that won’t be easy to meet.

Some education policy analysts have contended that the blueprint isn’t enough to bring about real change for Maryland students, whose test scores have been subpar for more than a decade now. The blueprint has been criticized, among other things, for lacking any real instructional guidance based in the “science of reading” — a large body of research that shows how people learn to read and why some have difficulty doing so.

And there are also the broader difficulties that public education is facing across the nation. Schools are struggling to bounce back after years of learning loss incurred by the pandemic. The latest round of national testing showed that there’s as yet been no real recovery. Math scores showed the largest drop in 50 years for 13-year-olds nationwide. Teacher shortages, which have been a particular issue in Maryland, are also a major problem across the country. One recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that nearly 9 in 10 public school districts surveyed were struggling to hire teachers.

Not all of these problems, certainly, are within the power of a single superintendent to fix. But what’s comforting about Wright is her air of pragmatic optimism — whatever can be done, she plans to do. Sitting in her Baltimore office, Wright laid out detailed descriptions of her work in Mississippi and how she plans to carry those successes over to Maryland. She also confidently rattled off the pillars of Maryland’s blueprint in depth and from memory. “I’m a firm believer in what gets measured gets done,” she said.

Carey Wright, Superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education
Wright has an air of pragmatic optimism and is convinced what she pulled off in Mississippi can happen in Maryland.
(David Kidd for Governing)

Getting Things Done

In Mississippi, under Wright’s watch, things got measured and they got done. When Wright arrived in the state in 2013, students’ National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores were among the worst in the country. (The test is often called the Nation’s Report Card and is used to determine student performance state by state.) By 2022, Mississippi’s fourth and eighth graders had jumped all the way to near the national average, while Maryland — a former top performer — had been steadily sliding downward. 

State lawmakers had a hand in Mississippi’s turnaround, passing an education law that required schools to develop a literacy curriculum based on the science of reading. Wright’s job was to shepherd Mississippi schools in implementing those changes and to create a strategic plan for improvement across the board. It wasn’t going to be easy. The Legislature’s literacy law, which called for holding back third graders who weren’t reading at grade level, generated controversy, and individual districts were defensive about their teachers, their standards and their instructional methods.  

You can’t have three-quarters of your schools being rated as excellent, and then not seeing student achievement commensurate with that.
Wright found ways to win people over. “I have always believed in being a consensus maker, listening to everybody’s views and taking everybody into account. Everybody has an equal voice at the table,” Wright says. “I have tried to be a good relationship builder because you just get so much more done that way.”

Phil Bryant, Mississippi’s Republican governor from 2012 to 2020, told The 74 that Wright “would go on conservative talk radio and spend an hour breaking down the standards, describing each one of them. You just don’t get a lot of education secretaries who say, ‘I’ll go on with the most conservative talk show host because I feel comfortable explaining this.’ But Carey Wright did it.”

Wright sent teaching coaches to schools, provided a training program for educators to practice teaching the science of reading and made high-quality instructional materials publicly available. “We could not make districts use certain interventions,” Wright recalls. “But what we started doing was developing lists of research-based interventions that they could find on our website.”

By way of carrots, Wright shone a positive spotlight on individual schools and districts that had achieved success. Her office started sending a videographer to schools across the state to collect interviews with principals, teachers and other professionals, then showed the videos during newly livestreamed education board meetings. (“A lot of people watched our board meetings,” she says. “Don’t ask me why.”)

She also instituted what she called “The ‘A’ Tour,” visiting the 19 highest-performing schools in the state to publicly celebrate their work, inviting media and public officials to draw attention to the places performing well. The next year, there were 34 “A-level” schools, and Wright began her tour earlier to visit each and every one. “You’re celebrating children, you’re celebrating their success, you’re celebrating teachers and leaders that made that happen and parents that were supporting schools,” Wright says. “It was just a way to celebrate education. And that is something that I think that I would definitely bring no matter where I was. I think that’s something that Maryland deserves.”

Revamping the System

Wright has indicated she plans to bring more than her penchant for praise to Maryland. She has already set about transplanting what she learned about what works in Mississippi — including who’s best for the job. She called on an old friend, Tenette Smith, who led elementary school reading in Mississippi, and asked her to lead literacy education in Maryland. She’s now the executive director of literacy programs and initiatives at MSDE. “We both had the same idea of where we wanted to go with Maryland,” Smith says. “We wanted to replicate what we did in Mississippi to show all the naysayers that this was not a fluke, this was truly a model that works and has research to back it up.”

Smith said that together with Wright, she’s identified a few core areas of focus for revamping the state’s literacy education, including providing high-quality instructional materials for teachers; increasing teacher capacity and professional development; making sure that all professional learning is aligned with practices they expect to see embedded in the classroom; and supporting families and providing them with the tools they need to support their kids’ learning. In January, Wright presented the State Board of Education with a comprehensive literacy policy geared around the science of reading, which will be implemented in the 2024-25 school year and aims to shoot Maryland up to the top 10 states in NAEP reading scores by 2027. “We will be following [the literacy policy] with professional development not only for teachers but for paraprofessionals and for principals, and also we’re going to be providing professional development for all the [teaching] coaches across the state,” Wright says. 

Since taking the permanent position, Wright has also said she plans to revamp the way Maryland rates its public schools to increase accountability. “You can’t have three-quarters of your schools being rated as excellent … and then not seeing student achievement almost commensurate with that,” she said at a news conference in April. In May, Wright and MSDE announced a four-year partnership with the nonprofit Ibis Group that will fund professional development aligned to the science of reading for thousands of Maryland teachers and administrators.

Carey Wright, Superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education
The new school year will provide a key test in Maryland, with Wright’s literacy program being implemented.
(David Kidd for Governing)
Kalman Hettleman, an education policy expert who frequently publishes commentary on Maryland’s education system, has high hopes for Wright so far, and speaks highly of the state’s new literacy policy. But he continues to be perturbed by what he believes are holes in the blueprint. Although $4 billion sounds like a big number, it’s stretched over more than a decade. Hettleman also argues there should be more resources dedicated to struggling learners and special education (although recently the state mandated the creation of a working group to study special education instruction in Maryland and recommend improvements). “It just ain’t enough money to do what needs to be done,” he says. “And it gives excuses to political officials not to put up more money and it misleads the public into thinking the blueprint is very generously funded.”

Anderson, the Johns Hopkins professor, is deeply concerned about the state’s ballooning share of conditionally certified teachers — those who are still working toward their credentials. Maryland has a large number of these teachers, at more than 5,000.

The blueprint does create a “career ladder” for teachers, charting a clear path for advancement and raises, and it sets a floor for teacher salaries starting in 2026 at $60,000. But Anderson said that $60,000 number is already the floor in many urban areas, while it’s beyond the reach of rural ones. “I am concerned about having qualified bodies in the classroom,” Anderson says. “The blueprint does not do enough to address that.”

Wright, for her part, agrees that the issue with teacher access will necessitate some creative solutions over the next several years. She suggests that schools may have to adapt, with paraprofessionals in the classroom assisting teachers with larger class sizes. Still, even with the blueprint’s salary floors, teachers will be paid less than other college graduates; across the country, it’s becoming harder to attract them to the field. Some jurisdictions, including neighboring Washington, D.C., have instituted programs that pay half of teachers’ down payments on a home or a condo in an effort to attract them to the city and the profession. 

In the end, Wright appears confident that there are immediate ways to ease burdens and get the train on the right track. While still in the interim role, she set about filling a raft of vacant positions left in the wake of Choudhury’s tenure. By April, vacancies at MSDE had dropped to less than half their former level. “I think people are excited to come to the agency,” Wright says, adding that she spent her months in the interim role building relationships with members of Maryland’s education board, state legislators and her teams at the department. “I wanted them to feel that the agency was in good hands and that people were going to feel heard,” she says.

Her North Star, she says, has been reminding the people she works with who this work is really for. “I know it sounds kind of hokey,” Wright says, “but children really are the future. What kind of opportunity are we providing them?”
Natalie Delgadillo is an editor and writer living in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bloomberg's CityLab, and The Atlantic. She was previously the managing editor of DCist.
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