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The Shakespearean Rise and Fall of Md. Schools Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury

Hettleman: He drove ed reform in San Antonio. In Maryland, his self-inflicted downfall was less about his 'disruptor' style than his lack of substance

Mohammed Choudhury

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A version of this essay appeared at Maryland Matters.

The appointment of Mohammed Choudhury as Maryland state schools superintendent has been a gripping story which I have followed closely.

As he was about to assume office in July 2021, I commended the state board on appointing someone with his potential. Then, in a review of his first 100 days, I wrote that he “seems to be living up to his advance billing … as a smart and high-powered change agent.” However, I also questioned whether “he will be too brash or impatient in his relationships not just with staff but with Annapolis leadership, teacher unions and …. local school systems.”

In fact, between then and this spring, his relationships rapidly deteriorated across the board: many documented allegations of a toxic work environment; rifts with the Blueprint Accountability and Implementation Board; growing tensions in his dealings with local districts; and widespread complaints by education advocates.

I wrote this past May, after weighing the pros and cons of his tenure, that “it seems unavoidable that Mr. Choudhury must go.” The state board was then negotiating his contract renewal. At first, the board seemed strongly in his corner; however, deliberations were dragging. Democratic Gov. Wes Moore was conspicuously evasive when asked just a few days ago whether he supported the renewal.

So Friday’s announcement that Choudhury would not seek to renew his contract was not the complete shocker that it would have been several months ago. At this point, he seemed to have no choice but to accede to the reality that he would not be offered a contract renewal.

The tale is a Shakespearean tragedy of self-inflicted downfall. I’ve noted that Choudhury “is hardworking, smart, data-driven at warp speed and passionately devoted to equity.” But he is also in denial — unable to get beyond his misbelief that criticisms about him were because he was, in his own words, “a disruptor” who was “going to rub some people the wrong way.”

The truth is that his ultimate undoing was less his style and much more his substance — or, to put it more accurately, his lack of substance (disruptive or otherwise): After two years on the job, Choudhury had little to show for it in reform action.

He has been mired for nearly two years in the process of a strategic plan. But it has not moved beyond conventional platitudes to specific tasks, timelines and measurable outcomes.

A telltale failure is the absence of any significant movement on his part to develop comprehensive instructional reforms, especially in early literacy, while aborting staff initiatives that were underway before his arrival.

Where does the Maryland State Department of Education go from here? It must bring in acting or permanent leadership as soon as possible. The blueprint is in jeopardy, and a first urgent task is to rebuild collaboration between the department and the Accountability and Implementation Board.

The name of Carey Wright has already surfaced as someone who can immediately help. She is the retired nationally acclaimed leader of the “Mississippi Miracle,” now a resident of Baltimore County and formerly a career teacher and top administrator in Prince George’s, Howard and Montgomery counties school systems. (I wrote about her recently in a column: “In teaching children to read, Mississippi puts Maryland to shame.”)

There’s no more time to lose. Educators, elected officials and all of us must rally behind the state board’s courageous leadership efforts.

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