Nancy S. Grasmick Interview

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Introduction

Nancy S. GrasmickNancy S. Grasmick is President of the Carson Scholars Fund. Dr. Grasmick received her bachelor's degree from Towson University, her master's from Gallaudet University, and her doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. Following a distinguished career as a teacher and administrator that began in Baltimore working with deaf children and thereafter engaged many aspects of the Baltimore County Public Schools system, Dr. Grasmick was appointed Maryland's State Superintendent of Schools. In 2006, she established a Middle School Steering Committee with the task of studying ways to improve teaching and learning in Maryland in the middle school grades. Two years later, the committee issued a report, The Critical Middle: A Reason for Hope (Maryland State Department of Education, 2008), which has attracted considerable attention. This report constitutes the principal focus of TheBestSchools.org's interview with Dr. Grasmick.

Nancy S. Grasmick Interview

TheBestSchools

Thank you very much, Dr. Grasmick, for taking time out from your busy schedule to be interviewed by TheBestSchools.org. We always like to begin our interviews with some personal information, which we find to be of great interest to our readers. So, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself? When and where were you born? What is your family's social/ethnic/religious background? And, finally, could you give us a thumbnail sketch of your education and your career as a public school teacher and administrator?

Nancy S. Grasmick

I was born and raised in Baltimore City. I graduated from an all-female high school, Western High School, at age 16. I received my Bachelor's Degree in Elementary Education from Towson University, my Master's Degree in Deaf Education from Gallaudet University, and my Doctorate in Communicative Sciences William S. Baer Schoolfrom Johns Hopkins University. I began my career as a classroom teacher for deaf students at the William S. Baer School (right) in Baltimore City, before serving as principal, supervisor, and as associate superintendent in the Baltimore County Public School System. I served as State Superintendent of top-ranked Maryland Public Schools for 20 years---from 1991 until 2011---serving 24 districts, 1,424 schools, and 869,113 students. Since 2011, I have been the Presidential Scholar for Innovation in Teacher and Leader Preparation at Towson University, the premier teacher preparation institution in Maryland. I am also on the Board of Visitors for Towson University. I am a faculty member at the Kennedy-Krieger Institute, an internationally recognized research institution dedicated to improving the lives of children and young adults with pediatric developmental disabilities and disorders of the brain, spinal cord, and musculoskeletal system. I co-direct an innovative fellowship program to prepare administrators as leaders in special education, and am Vice-President of the Kennedy-Krieger Board of Directors.

TheBestSchools

You recently assumed the presidency of the Carson Scholars Fund (CSF), a position previously held by Dr. Ben Carson. We had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Carson on the occasion of the annual awards banquet for the Pittsburgh chapter of the CSF (May, 2015). For the benefit of our readers who have yet to acquaint themselves with that interview, could you please tell us a bit about the mission of the CSF? What were the circumstances under which you were appointed as its President? How long have you been a supporter of this organization and what are your plans for its future?

Nancy S. Grasmick

The mission of the Carson Scholars Fund is to identify and support students in grades 4--11 who achieve at a high level academically and also engage in responding to various needs in their communities through service. Scholarships of $1,000 are awarded annually to about 500 students. The Fund also Ben Carson Reading Roomssupports the Ben Carson Reading Project. To date, the Fund has established over 130 reading rooms (left) in schools, where kids can go to experience the joys of reading.

Dr. Carson was well versed in the regulations concerning the avoidance of political influence in the governance of non-profit organizations with a 504 designation. When he decided to enter the race for President of the United States, he immediately stepped aside from involvement with the Carson Scholars Fund. I was honored to be asked by Dr. Carson and his wife, Candy, to assume the interim presidency. I have been an ardent supporter of this organization for more than 20 years. While State Superintendent of Schools, I witnessed first-hand its significant influence on the academic performance of students. As I look to the future, I would like to see the foundation grow and impact more students from an academic and service perspective, and I would like to identify and more fully engage successful alumni to facilitate a multiplier effect in their giving back to this mission.

TheBestSchools

As an educator with long experience in the world of American public education, you are surely well acquainted with the multiculturalist and secularist philosophies that prevail there. From our interview with Dr. Carson, we take it that he holds to a much more traditionally oriented philosophy of education. For our part, we are convinced that reforming public education will require more than technical fixes, and will involve broad public debate about deep philosophical issues concerning the nature of human beings and the proper ends of education.

The Critical MiddleFor these reasons, we would like to spend the remainder of this interview respectfully probing your views on educational philosophy. To this end, we thought it best to frame our questions in terms of the well-received report, The Critical Middle: A Reason for Hope, that was issued in 2008 by the Maryland State Board of Education under your auspices (you are listed as the document's lead author on Amazon). So, here goes.

In the Introduction, the committee presents some startling statistics showing that academic achievement declines precipitously during the middle school years, both in Maryland and in the country at large. Even more disturbing, the achievement gap between poor students and their more affluent counterparts approximately doubles between grades 4 and 8! The committee concludes (p. 2) that the problem we should really be thinking about is not so much “college readiness” as high school readiness.

That is an understandable conclusion. However, the remainder of the document seems to leave an obvious question unanswered: What is going so terribly wrong in the middle school grades, especially for African-American and other minority children? Is the startling decline in their academic achievement related to the school curriculum? Or is it perhaps due to societal factors beyond the school's control? What is the real problem here and how should we be addressing it?

Nancy S. Grasmick

Let me address the educational policy concern first. Historically, middle schools have engaged in a tug of war between addressing the very significant adolescent characteristics of middle school students: how the affect of the students should be handled, contrasted with focusing exclusively on providing the academic rigor needed to prepare students for successful high school experiences. Educational systems have vacillated in placing emphasis on the affective vs. the academic, and only recently has the education community experienced some success in responding to this combination of needs within the middle school student.

Teacher preparation is key. Middle school teachers require unique training to be successful in today's classrooms. Far too often, high school teachers are excessed to be middle school teachers, yet they have little or no understanding of, or tolerance for, the developmental period in the life of a Middle School Studentsmiddle school student. Alternatively, elementary school teachers are also excessed to be middle school teachers; they are often ill-prepared to teach the more rigorous content required at the middle school level. Teacher preparation programs are now beginning to train teachers to manage both the developmental and academic needs of the middle school student and States are beginning to identify highly qualified middle school teachers through their credentialing and certification process.

You also ask if the performance at the middle school level is due to societal factors traditionally beyond the school's control. Obviously, there are societal factors that are outside of the school's control. But students bring them with them into the school. If we are going to be successful at all, we must learn to take those negatives and turn them into positives. We succeed when students react positively to a school environment that makes them feel safe and supported, supports their need for structure, and gives them a level of control over their school experience.

TheBestSchools

The section titled “Goals” on pages 7 and 8 of the report attempts to justify the need to teach the “3 R's” (reading, writing, and arithmetic). Speak to us about the need to teach basic literacy and numeracy skills in the public schools today. Why aren't these “goals” simply being taken for granted, as they have in times past? It was a little disconcerting to us at TBS to see these goals articulated in this way, as though anyone needed to be convinced of the obvious.

Nancy S. Grasmick

Like almost every profession, education goes through periods of change. During parts of the 60's and 70's, there was much less emphasis on core academics, which fundamentally included reading, writing, and arithmetic. timothy-learyStudents at all educational levels were encouraged to “broaden their experiences” by exploring multiple areas of personal interest. Many educators lament that an unintended consequence of that shift in emphasis is subject matter content being taught in our schools today that is a mile wide, but an inch deep.

When the education community diminished the importance of the core subject areas, students matriculated through the system without acquiring the foundational pre-requisite skills. The result was a new generation of teacher candidates who were no longer prepared to emphasize and fully teach these foundational skills. Obviously, students don't learn what teachers don't teach. Re-focusing our classrooms and teacher preparations programs is taking time. That is why continually advocating for this shift in emphasis and stating the need overtly, as was done in this report, is of such paramount importance.

However, having said that, teaching core academics does not mean returning to the education system of the 1950's. Mastering core academics is not just a case of memorization and practice. How we integrate the arts and social sciences into our curriculum and allow for personal innovation and creativity is essential. A 21st-century, effective educational system must include mastery of all of the skill-sets needed for success in this contemporary world. Those skill sets include problem solving, inquiry, application, and integration of knowledge. It is impossible to identify a profession where one does not need to know how to read, how to write, and how to deal with arithmetic functions, to be successful. But today's world also demands additional talents: to apply those skills to specific fields and professions, to engage in human interaction, to solve problems, and to create new innovations.

TheBestSchools

On p. 9, there is a brief section that justifies the teaching of “health,” much of which reads as a euphemism for sex education, though the word “sex” is never mentioned. The report discusses “risky behavior” and “healthy choices,” thereby running the danger of reducing essentially moral questions to scientific-sounding ones. Do you have any thoughts on the proper approach to sex education in the public schools? Does the Carson Scholars Fund have a policy here? Do you know what Dr. Carson's views are on this matter?

Nancy S. Grasmick

Keep in mind, that the report, The Critical Middle: A Reason for Hope, was being researched and discussed nearly a decade ago. Today, limiting a discussion on the teaching of health, to simply sex education, would be a disservice to the enormous issues in our society that students face, such as the use/abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs; nutrition and dietary disorders; emotional and mental health; physical activity and disease prevention; and accessing community and family health services and support. As an educator, I believe it is the responsibility of the educational system to provide accurate and timely health information to students, to identify options, and to delineate the consequences of those options. Decisions about all of these issues impact a student's overall health and ultimate academic success. Obviously, for the educational system, the controversy is in moving from “informing” to “forming” the behavior of students. Dr. Carson is a strong proponent of parental responsibility for taking the information that is taught in the classroom and guiding their children to make good decisions.

There have been books written about the education system and its role in defining and teaching morality and ethics. This interview doesn't lend itself to a thoughtful discussion of that weighty topic. However, I can say that I believe that there are universal behaviors that we hope would be imparted to our students at home. Unfortunately, the circumstances of many of our students' home lives do not permit this to happen. I believe that, in those instances, the educational system can have a role in teaching and reinforcing such universal values as honor, trust, kindness, respect, and honesty.

TheBestSchools

On p. 4, the report speaks very briefly of the need for a “safe and orderly environment” in the public schools; then it says it will not discuss this subject further. But isn't the disorderly atmosphere in public school classrooms---and the lack of disciplinary recourse by teachers---one of the biggest unresolved problems facing public school education?

Zero de ConduiteThe outgoing CEO of the public school system here in Chicago, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, recently changed district policy such that students may now throw pencils and other objects across the room at each other without incurring the risk of suspension---this on the grounds that a disproportionate number of African-American students were being suspended for such behavior. We have received first-hand reports from teachers who tell us they must routinely shout to make themselves heard in class over the din of conversation, and that for a student to swear at a teacher to her face is nothing out of the ordinary---and incurs no penalty.

In light of these facts on the ground, could you please share with our readers your thoughts about the proper role and implementation of discipline in primary and secondary public school education?

Nancy S. Grasmick

I do believe a safe and orderly environment is essential to student learning. Teachers and students have the fundamental right to be safe in the classroom. Teaching and learning cannot take place in chaos.

For years, classroom management was not taught in teacher preparation programs, or certainly not as a priority. Even now, what is taught might be an outdated model with little relevance to the modern classroom. New models are emerging that have little in common with teachers standing at the front of the room, demanding that student behavior improve. Several times throughout this school year, I visited a third-grade class in a high poverty school in Baltimore County, Maryland. Those students were taught to take responsibility for their own learning by collaboratively monitoring their behavior, supporting each other, and resolving infractions through specific techniques. The positive learning environment in that classroom rivaled any that I have seen over my long career in education.

While I am not suggesting that this approach be immediately mandated for every school, I do believe that there are classroom management models that can be highly successful when embraced by the teachers and principals of a particular school and implemented with fidelity. Teacher preparation programs must do a better job of training new teachers to use these models and school systems must be willing to give teachers and principals the flexibility to use what works in their classrooms and schools.

TheBestSchools

The report's curriculum recommendations on p. 13 (namely, algebra, science, a foreign language) are pretty much the same subjects that we took in junior high school 50 years ago in Texas. What has your experience been in implementing this curriculum in today's schools? What success are you having? Can we look forward to a time soon when having eighth graders learning beginning algebra is once again considered to be normal---not something remarkable?

Nancy S. Grasmick

Although there may have been exposure to these subjects, there was a long period of time when the offerings languished for any kind of consistency of implementation. In addition to that point, the content and depth of content has changed over the years. Currently, in the state of Maryland, most of our eighth graders have completed Algebra 1 by the time they exit middle school. There is a greater emphasis on foreign language, not only to begin in the STEMmiddle school, but also in immersion programs in the elementary years. Science competence is now being measured in elementary school; therefore, a much stronger curriculum in science is required. At all levels, schools are emphasizing STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). None of these things are thought to be remarkable today, but rather normal and expected.

TheBestSchools

On p. 14, the report justifies teaching the fine arts almost wholly in pragmatic terms---learning about the arts supposedly improves “creative problem solving,” “spatial-temporal reasoning,” and so forth. Whatever happened to the idea that one ought to know about the great works of art simply because they are worth knowing? And what about the idea that beauty ennobles the soul?

Nancy S. Grasmick

I have long believed that nothing is as effective in teaching as an emphasis on the importance of how we use the knowledge we have, as the arts teach us. There is no great artist---whether they are painting, playing a musical instrument, or acting in a theater---who doesn't require the ability to apply knowledge. It is important that students have a repertoire of appreciation for the arts, thus creating future audiences for the arts. But the application of learning is something the arts excel in teaching our students. So, it is not one or the other, in my opinion, it is both: the arts enhance our lives, and the arts teach us expression and application of learning.

TheBestSchools

Stepping back now and looking at the big picture, could you please talk to us about how you see the main problems facing American education today? If Ben Carson were elected President of the United States and made you his “education czar,” what would your major recommendations be?

Nancy S. Grasmick

My major recommendation would be that this nation would view education as the most critical obligation of government. In that regard, we would set the highest standards for teachers, so that every child would be exposed to a classroom with a highly competent teacher. I would hope that our society would Finland Educationvalue education, and thus elevate the teaching profession as they do in Asian countries, in Germany, and in Finland (left). We would never hear a State of the Union message where, in a 45-minute to an hour presentation, there is merely one sentence on education.

Education would begin with very young children and would have much greater flexibility to meet the individual needs of students. For example, allowing those high school students who are ready to exit at any time and move on with their lives, so that we don't have students in a holding pattern in high school when they are ready to take the next steps in their educational repertoire. I would also not say that every student has to have a college degree. There are very worthy professions that don't require a college degree, but make very respectable living wages. These jobs require high standards of industry certification---such as careers in technology, construction, and health care, and including electricians, plumbers, graphic artists, etc.---and should be considered as valued and respected options for students.

TheBestSchools

We suppose that the kind of philosophical pressure we have been putting you under today is more or less diametrically opposed to the kind of pressure you were under when you headed up the public schools for the state of Maryland. What does it feel like to be caught in the crossfire of one of the most contentious areas of American public life today? To have the gun sights of both the multiculturalist left and the traditionalist right trained on you, so to speak?

Nancy S. Grasmick

My tenure of 20 years as State Superintendent in Maryland allowed me to see all sides of the continuum. I felt that it was always important to know both sides and all of the intervening issues on any given subject. My constant focus was always on what is in the best interest of children. I've always felt it was a privilege to be in a position to influence, hopefully in a positive way, the lives of students, and to prepare them in a solid way for the pathway to their future.

TheBestSchools

Finally, are we simply asking too much of America's public schools and public school teachers? Aren't the problems they face mostly problems faced by American society as a whole that have nothing to do with education per se? Is it fair to ask teachers to fix everything that is broken in American society?

Nancy S. Grasmick

I believe we do ask too much of America's public schools and public schools teachers, to deal with all of the society's problems. Teachers should not be asked to fix everything that is broken in American society. In many instances, parents abrogate their responsibilities to schools. I would hope that we might create a new generation of attitudes in our students to accept personal responsibility, for their learning, for their actions, and for their obligations, particularly to their obligations as future parents. I'm convinced that this would make a dramatic change in the value system of our country and the assumption of responsibility for entities outside of the school system.

TheBestSchools

Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview with TheBestSchools.org. Is there anything you would like to say to our readers in parting? Where do you expect the Carson Scholars Fund to be 10 years from now? Where do you hope American public education will be 10 years from now?

Nancy S. Grasmick

Jaime EscalanteIt was a pleasure to think through the questions that were posed. I feel great teachers are truly creative artists in human lives, and that great education will define, in a positive way, the future of our country, if we do achieve that goal. I think the Carson Scholars Fund is helping to elevate the aspirations of our students related to scholarship and service. In 10 years, my hope is we will not have 550 students being recognized a year, but rather 50,000 students. I hope that 10 years from now, education will be the highest priority of our country with very high standards, so that this country will have an army of well-educated students who are prepared to contribute and solve extraordinary issues that will continue to confront us.

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