789bet Interview: Mohammed Choudhury on Stepping Down as Maryland Schools Chief
In an exclusive, state’s outgoing superintendent talks about his wins and missteps, the need for ‘cover to go bold’ and ‘the impossible-possible.'
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Few stars have blazed as bright in education innovation circles as Mohammed Choudhury’s. In less than 15 years, he rose from classroom teacher to turnaround and innovation czar in some of the country’s largest — and most impoverished — school systems. At each stop, his ideas have had a profound impact, undergirding novel policies that have changed how numerous education leaders confront inequity.
Choudhury was hired to lead the Maryland Department of Education in July 2021, after spearheading an audacious and much-admired socioeconomic school integration effort in San Antonio. At a moment when the pandemic had turned longstanding inequities into yawning chasms, Maryland was getting a new superintendent of schools whose innovations had already borne fruit. Choudhury, in turn, appeared to be stepping into a job ready-made for a change agent.
But recently, Choudhury announced he would not seek a second term when his three-year contract ended in June 2024. In July, with the of its chair, the state Board of Education had until 2028. “Full on,” the head of a key House committee told the Washington Post, “they love him.”
In September, the love affair ended.
While support for reappointing Choudhury appeared to fall apart quickly, controversy had swirled for weeks. A July cited current and former Education Department employees — many of them speaking anonymously — as saying Choudhury had created a “toxic” environment, berating subordinates. Board of Education leaders told the paper they took the allegations very seriously but ultimately rejected the claims.
Shortly after Choudhury’s announcement, the board asked him to remain until next summer as an adviser and appointed Carey Wright — a Baltimore resident who recently retired from a widely lauded run as state superintendent in Mississippi — as interim chief.
Wright inherits some bright spots: Released in August, showed that while students’ performance in math still lagged, reading proficiency had . Pushing the state’s 24 districts to implement science-backed reading instruction and to train teachers on the new approaches were at the heart of one of Choudhury’s most popular initiatives, a grant program called Maryland Leads.
The seeds of his focus on equity were sown early. The son of immigrants from Bangladesh, Choudhury grew up acutely aware of public education’s life-changing potential, and the ways in which many are denied opportunity. His grandfather had built the first school in the family’s ancestral village not reserved for children of elites. As a student in high-poverty schools in Los Angeles, Choudhury lived a variation, singled out for college prep classes while friends languished.
Choudhury started as a classroom teacher but quickly was tapped to help the Los Angeles Unified School District’s turnaround efforts. From there, he went to work in the Dallas Independent School District, where he helped to design a program called Accelerating Campus Excellence, which gave top teachers hefty incentives to work in the schools with the biggest challenges. credits the approach with improving student outcomes.
Choudhury then moved to San Antonio, where he created a mold-breaking method for measuring poverty and used it to integrate schools according to socioeconomic factors and to more fairly distribute resources, including top teaching talent. The district’s rapid academic improvements came to the attention of Texas education officials, who modeled new state policies on it.
Maryland seemed like a natural next landing spot. After , in 2020 a bipartisan coalition of General Assembly members had passed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, an ambitious education reform plan that would dramatically boost both school funding and accountability for results. Then-Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed the measure, objecting that lawmakers had not figured out how to fund the 10-year, $4 billion initiative.
The assembly overrode the veto. Hogan’s successor, Democrat Wes Moore, has earmarked $500 million to fund the blueprint until 2025. What happens after that is unclear.
Atypically, Maryland’s constitution mandates that its state education agency be politically independent — at least nominally. Governors appoint the Board of Education’s 14 members, who in turn choose the superintendent. In June, with discussion of Choudhury’s next contract underway, Moore appointed six new board members.
The board is not the only entity the superintendent reports to, however. The blueprint — which has the force of law — is also overseen by a newly created Accountability Implementation Board.
In the exit interview that follows, Choudhury declined to specify what ultimately happened to end his tenure. But he addresses some of the challenges he tried to navigate as well as areas where he wishes he had done things differently. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When you were tapped to be Maryland’s top education official, it must have seemed like a dream job. The hard work of creating bipartisan agreement about a Marshall Plan had already occurred. The resulting Blueprint for Maryland’s Future has the force of law. You inherited a department that’s independent of an elected executive, and districts that seemed eager for your leadership. Why might that not have been enough?
I still believe the opportunity is there. Over a 10-year period, Maryland will significantly increase its per-pupil dollars across the board, plus the dollars that go directly to historically disadvantaged students. But ultimately, as I always say, the money has to land in the right places, and there have to be the right conditions of support and accountability to pull off the big things. Maryland has created the conditions to do it.
I came in to do that work and to rebuild a department. Both of those at the same time? It’s the impossible-possible task. I believed coming in, and I believe now that I have transitioned out, that Maryland has the ability to show what is possible. But it’s not enough to just have the resources. It’s not enough to rebuild a department. It’s not enough to have a bold leader. You have to also have political will and capital — you have to stay the course.
Maryland can show what’s possible if we stay on the right course for kids. However, in between all of that are a lot of different things related to adult interests and politics, resistance to pain, the tension between local control and setting a standard for excellence. You have to ultimately have people give you the cover to go bold. Decisionmakers all across the state have to want it and support it in order to realize the promise.
I have heard other change agents talk about the process of building bipartisan agreement as warming up the water. Something that needs to happen before a leader with a vision can be tapped. Do you think the process of passing the blueprint did that?
The blueprint was adopted with a lot of support, but it did have good old-fashioned drama leading up to that. It was vetoed, and then there was an override vote to pass it.
Investing in the children of Maryland, giving educators the very best support and families the best possible education — there is no debate about that. However, there is tension — and it’s out in the open — around the cost and how that is sustained.
How much is enough? At the end of the day, we know adequacy matters. If you’re not going to solve other aspects of society — from housing and economic mobility to many other structural inequities — and you’re going to tell families education will give you the tools to get there, you’ve got to make sure that student spending in historically disadvantaged communities, such as Baltimore City or Caroline County Public Schools, out on the Eastern Shore, have the resources needed to overcome the vertical inequity. Where the challenge is, where the unresolved tension exists is, how do you sustain the cost long term? But also, how do you ensure that there’s no retrenched backsliding?
I am of the opinion that the blueprint got much closer to adequate, immediately. It’s not perfect, but it is pushing it forward. But again, it is not enough to just put in the resources. For example, we know that adopting high-quality instructional materials and giving teachers the tools to master them is very powerful. However, there’s tensions with that that don’t get solved with a law. It could, but implementing it is a whole other thing.
That does require a state department of education to figure that out and navigate it. That does require being able to get creative and strategic in how you do that. There was not unanimous consent on being more open to more standardization [while] understanding that we have to give up just doing our own thing. That’s something I faced as I did this.
Unlike other state education leaders, you reported to two appointed boards.
Yes, the state Board of Education and, new as a result of the blueprint, an Accountability Implementation Board. Two governing entities who had approval authority. As the leader, you have to figure out how to work with one and the other, how to ensure that any tensions are resolved, how to bring people together — how to do all those things. Sometimes that is possible. When it’s not possible, you have to figure out how to make it possible.
This is your fourth post as a change agent. What can you tell us about commonalities that enable change and stymie change?
Let’s start with the commonalities that enable change. You have to have the policy conditions to do great work, but those conditions don’t have to be apples to apples. For example, Texas has one of the stronger literacy laws for teacher training around the science of reading, whereas Maryland does not. However, Maryland does have policy conditions that allowed my team to enable training for staff, which was absolutely critical as part of our recovery.
You’ve got to have buy-in, you have to have a group of talented folks who enjoy impossible-possible challenges. And you’ve got to be able to invest in them and enable them to succeed. The places I have been, I had that.
Making student-centered decisions requires the cover of decisionmakers, of community engagement organizations and stakeholders. And sometimes even an individual. You may have it coming in, and you’ve got to sustain it as a leader. Otherwise, you’re going to be on some kind of suicide mission. And you’re not going to be able to get the work done. So that matters, big time.
Now let’s talk about the things that block change. One is not having that cover. Sometimes you have to build toward it, sometimes you just don’t have it. Not having — or losing — that matters.
Another thing that blocks change is if you lose the ability to fund and support the thing you started. Resources matter. If people work against that or move away from that, then you’re done.
We have research around that. For example, in Dallas, our turnaround work — Accelerating Campus Excellence — showed that when we invested more, along with making sure the money is in the right places, it transformed low-performing schools in an extraordinary way. When that money was removed, there was a retrench back.
Your detractors have depicted you as abrasive and sometimes overconfident. Do you think that’s fair?
I am a passionate leader who wears my emotions on my sleeve. I treat people with a great amount of dignity and respect. If someone asked me, what’s your proof of that? My track record. I’ve built amazing teams. People enjoy working with me to change things in the world.
At the same time, I am passionate about making sure the right things happen. When you come into a place and you are told that the status quo is not working for kids, we are failing children, we are not doing enough, you are going to as a leader rub up against the status quo. You’re going to make some people who have overseen that status quo uncomfortable.
I am not surprised that I have detractors. We had detractors in this work in Dallas. In this country, when there has been a moment of change, when there have not been detractors? I would love to know. I would love to see polling from the Civil Rights era, on our greatest leaders. Pick your moment in history — do they happen without some noise?
This work is very personal. I’m 100% the product of Title 1 schools. I helped my [immigrant] family navigate filling out forms and other things. Our child care scholarship program … was taking six weeks to get people scholarships. It was very important to me that I set a new standard of excellent customer service. We put in a fast-track application. It has done wonders. We can get people a scholarship within three to four days. We have increased the number of children who are being served by the child care system by almost 40%.
Look at the data on the rebuilding of the department. It was a place where people used to go to retire and get rehired. It was the place where people — leaders on the ground, teachers, directors — would not come to work. During my time, that completely changed. I brought the best turnaround principal from Baltimore City to be my chief transformation and school improvement officer. Before, someone like that would never come to the job. I got the principal of the year to head up our community schools department.
The leadership of the department reflects the diversity of the children of Maryland. I cut attrition to historic levels, cut the vacancy rate and increased retention to nearly a decade low. And all of that while still wearing my passion on my sleeve. I am very proud of that.
About the confidence? In this role, for the first time I have found myself for my passion. In an update that I provided to the General Assembly on how things were going with the department as well as to address some of the false claims that were beginning to surface, I found myself having to do that.
I am not sorry for the high expectations. I am proud of what we pulled off. But I don’t know why I found myself having to apologize. I have ideas why.
What do you want from your leader other than confidence that something is going to work for children? I don’t mean a sense of hubris that is not rooted in evidence-based practices. I am talking about if we are going to do things in the world for kids —train up our teachers when it comes to how to most effectively teach reading, scale up apprenticeships and do it creatively using federal dollars we’re not going to get back — I have to be confident it’s going to work. Is it a perfect science? No, but I have to be a confident leader.
Let’s talk about Maryland Leads. You used the state’s share of pandemic recovery aid to fund grants to school systems to kickstart their efforts to comply with the blueprint.
As a state chief, you can get people to do something by inspiring them. You have the bullhorn, you have the ability to call a press conference, issue guidance. You have the ability to incentivize via grant making — especially during the era of American Rescue Plan and ESSER dollars. Third is a mandate: You shall do this. All three are needed ultimately, to get things right.
Ultimately, if you want the work to last beyond you, you have to utilize the first — inspiration. Getting people to want to ensure effective instructional practices, getting local superintendents, getting local boards, to want to organically move toward the right practices is ultimately going to stick. You can make some things happen faster through a mandate, but when the mandate goes away — or the wind blows a different way and the mandate is taken away — is the change actually going to stick?
And frankly, people need dollars sometimes to pull off what you’re telling them to do. I recently gave a congressional briefing about Maryland Leads. It’s a drop in the bucket when you think about the recurring dollars that school systems have and what the blueprint puts in. However, we designed that drop in a bucket to shift those recurring dollars into the right evidence-based practices.
Give us some examples.
There’s no better example than the science of reading. Maryland is not a state with robust literacy laws. It has some level of law that can be worked with, but it is not ultimately enough to get people to where we need them to be. We used our state set-aside to [incentivize] seven strategies, one of which was the science of reading. Others included reimagining the school day and staff recruitment and retention. It wasn’t necessarily a significant amount of money. But I come back to this idea of a drop of money, designed well, can do extraordinary things.
Baltimore City Superintendent Sonja Santelises is a very strong academic leader who, prior to me coming in, had a priority of shifting the school system toward evidence-based literacy practices and the use of high-quality curricula. They also started supplementing that curricula to ensure that it reflected the students of Baltimore.
What Maryland Leads enabled her to do is scale their work around coaching. A Rand Corp. study on the use of high-quality instructional materials shows that it’s not enough just to adopt them. Coaching teachers on how to master their use is where you can truly unlock the power. And they had a significant jump in literacy rates coming out of the pandemic, almost 5 percentage points. That’s incredible. It’s one of the highest gains in terms of proficiency, as well as growth.
Prince George’s County also scaled up its adoption of high-quality material and its training and support for teachers. Of the top 50 Maryland schools that made the greatest improvements, especially in literacy, more than half were in Prince George’s County.
I’m always thinking about sustainability. In Texas, I could only dream of the dollars that Maryland is putting into its education system. In Texas, we had to make the dollar really sweat. Maryland Leads was designed to last beyond ESSER. If you have skin in the game, an initiative is more likely to last. So we told districts we would match their dollars.
I also used the force of law around the blueprint. We had to design a template [outlining] districts’ plans for implementing the blueprint and get the Accountability Implementation Board to adopt it. We asked, what is your high-quality instructional material? Where are you with training your teachers? All of that was us trying, essentially, to use Maryland Leads to supercharge the strategy and then use the blueprint to enshrine it.
Superintendent Santelises wrote that your work on something called Neighborhood Indicators of Poverty is “the strongest work product ever produced by the Maryland State Department of Education.” What is that, and what will it enable?
I do appreciate Dr. Santelises’ comment, because she knows that if schools were more adequately funded, as well as given tools to leverage that money to ensure it lands in the right places, and the political cover to do it — going back to that cover piece, right? — that she could do even more great things.
When I went to work in San Antonio, Superintendent Pedro Martinez, one of my mentors, was already looking at income. I came in and said, to build a better measure of poverty, you can’t just look at income, you’ve got to look at other factors, like family makeup and home ownership. Our measure ultimately got adopted by the state of Texas. It was used to revamp compensatory funding and bring San Antonio more adequate resources. It took our Title 1 dollars from close to $50 million to close to $80 million.
It also created something called the teacher incentive allotment that essentially tied teacher placement and impact to pay. If you’re not going to disrupt segregation, then you better make sure that [the most impacted] schools are some of the most expensive and that those teachers are compensated like rock stars.
One thing that got me really excited about the blueprint, that made me put my hat in for the job, is that to see if there’s a better way to measure poverty, it said the department had to by January 2023. I seized that moment. Based on my team’s work in Texas, we were able to show that there is a much better way to fund our schools and give them adequate resources. Especially students living in abject poverty.
Maryland was already putting significant money into concentration of poverty and compensatory funding. But one of the things we did with that report was show that Baltimore City, as well as some of our rural counties, like Caroline County, were not being given what they should be in order to pull off bigger things quickly.
We put a model bill at the end of the report: Here’s the way you can enshrine it. And by the way, you should use it not just to give more money to systems, along with another layer of accountability, but also to pay teachers who have the toughest assignments in our state in a differentiated manner. This past legislative session it got introduced.
If you had it to do over again, are there things you would do differently? Do you have any regrets?
I definitely have reflected on this over the last few weeks, given how fresh my transition is. Yes. I’m into implementation, I like hanging out with my team, thinking through, Okay, we’ve got to pull this off, what’s it going to take? And then monitoring progress. However, as a leader — and I looked at case studies of other leaders — you’ve got to spend some time that is not about the work and the strategy and implementing the details. I could spend more time engaging, talking to people who are power brokers, who have more political capital, who have the ability to ultimately be for or against something and can either work against you or for you.
I know there are moments where I have to say no, this is not the right decision for kids, or no, we can’t change course here. But at the same time, if I could go back, I would maybe take another moment to think through and be like, Hey, maybe it is okay to adapt the strategy here, but not compromise the student-centered focus that I wanted to keep.
I would have spent more time explaining the changes. Sometimes, I do 20 things at the same time. You have to if you’re going to pull off 20 things. I had a mandate to implement the blueprint, work collaboratively with two governing entities and rebuild the department — while constantly hearing billions of dollars are going into our education system, we’re failing children, we have to recover from the pandemic. I’m used to moving with urgency. Children deserve that. But I think maybe I could have used my brakes or yellow light and done a little more to explain some things.
I had three years. And I blinked and I was already in my contract renewal phase.
When I first met you, you told me a story about you, as a young person of color identified as gifted in an integrated, high-poverty school, realizing not all your classmates got the same opportunities. That Mohammed, who had that moment as a very young man, has his belief set changed?
That’s an important question. I absolutely have not wavered in my beliefs that the world needs to be changed for kids for the better. That’s something that has inspired me ever since I visited the school that my grandfather started in the village [in Bangladesh]. That hasn’t changed. I want to build schools, figuratively and literally, and be on that mission. It gives me purpose.
However, I did have a moment where I asked myself — especially as I faced the detractors and their attempts to smear my team and my administration, and then ultimately finding myself making the decision to not return — at what cost? Is this worth everything that you have put in? I had that moment.
Ultimately, my resolve for wanting to stay the course has not changed. However, as someone who sits in the CEO’s seat, you have to be ready to make compromises while still moving forward. Don’t do 10 of something, do five of something. Maybe you have to place an adult interest over students’ interests — but for the greater good of still staying the course on student interest.
I think the young kid that I was when I first declared that I wanted to be in education had a pure drive. You have to be able to pull this off, because children’s lives matter. Definitely children of color and in poverty — that reflects what happened to me as an individual and what I became. However, if I don’t figure out long term how to better navigate those compromises and still feel like I’m not giving up or selling out, then I should stop.
I will say it one more time: I believe that I have to learn about the art of compromise. And I can’t tell you what the threshold is. You have to put yourself on that threshold and be like, Yeah, that’s a compromise, but it doesn’t take away from the student-focused goal we have. Or, That’s a compromise that will throw off the work and may potentially also ruin my ability to continue.
What do you do, Mohammed? I know those moments have to happen throughout a leader’s journey. And I hope that I’m better for what comes next.
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