Teaching Profession

At 94, Sondheim Bids Adieu To Md. Education Board

By David J. Hoff — July 09, 2003 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Walter Sondheim Jr. has probably had a greater impact on Maryland education in his retirement than many people had during their careers in the state’s schools.

In the late 1980s, the Baltimore native, then in his 80s, led the charge to establish the accountability system that changed how Maryland tested its students and assured they met new state learning goals. In 1995, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, appointed him to the state board of education, a post that made Mr. Sondheim a steward of the program he helped create.

Now, a few weeks away from his 95th birthday on July 25, the impeccably dressed former department-store executive has left his seat on the board. His June 25 departure was forced by state law that limits board members to two four-year terms.

While he refuses to take credit for policies he’s been influential in launching, state leaders say he was the force behind the innovative, nationally scrutinized testing system that defined student achievement in new ways in the 1990s.

The program grew out of a the Governor’s Commission on School Performance, which then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer formed in 1988 and tapped Mr. Sondheim to chair.

The commission’s report called for a system of testing and accountability that would measure schools’ success in helping student achieve. It led to the introduction of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program and a series of state interventions to help low-performing schools improve.

Other states adopted much of the framework of the Maryland plan and added their own standards.

While Maryland educators still refer the influential commission paper as the Sondheim Report, the panel’s chairman gives the credit for it to others.

“My total contribution to the report was the letter I wrote [to Mr. Schaefer in unveiling it],” Mr. Sondheim said over breakfast shortly before his final meeting as a member of the state board. “And I wrote it myself, I’m proud to say.”

Others note that the report was groundbreaking in Maryland and put it ahead of other states in the school improvement debates of the 1990s. And they are quick to recognize Mr. Sondheim’s role.

“The [federal] No Child Left Behind legislation represents how visionary Walter was in his leadership,” Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools and a friend of Mr. Sondheim’s, said at the breakfast. “The legislation is totally aligned with the provisions of the report.”

Aided Desegregation

K-12 education is only one avenue of civic service Mr. Sondheim has pursued dating back to World War II, when he served Stateside in the U.S. Navy.

After retiring in 1970 from Hochschild, Kohn & Co., a now-defunct Baltimore department store, he led the effort to develop Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with museums, hotels, and other tourist destinations. He’s served on a long list of boards and committees. He still works as a senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business- led civic group.

In 1999, The Sun of Baltimore named him one of the “Marylanders of the Century.”

“When problems fester, majors and governors put Mr. Sondheim on board,” the newspaper wrote. “When the problems are crucial, they make him chairman.”

In 1954, for example, he was the president of the Baltimore city school board when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. Under his leadership, the Baltimore schools desegregated quickly, despite protests and resistance in the white community.

“Some of us thought we were having riots,” Mr. Sondheim said. “By today’s standards, they were minor disturbances.”

One of those disturbances was a cross-burning on his lawn. It was a small one, he remembers, and a neighbor quickly put the blaze out so Mr. Sondheim’s children wouldn’t see it.

‘A Calming Influence’

Mr. Sondheim said he has no plans after retiring from the state board.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m going to go through a stack of books.”

Ms. Grasmick, who has known him since she worked in his offices at Hochschild Kohn as a teenager in the 1950s, said he will be missed on the board.

“He’s such a calming influence,” the schools chief said. “He always hits the heart of the issue.”

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Building Teacher Capacity for Social-Emotional Learning
Set goals that support adult well-being and social-emotional learning: register today!


Content provided by Panorama
Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Joe and Jill Biden Honor Teachers at Long-Delayed White House Ceremony
The president, with the first lady in attendance, called teachers the "single most consequential people in the world beyond our parents."
4 min read
First lady Jill Biden hugs Juliana Urtubey, 2021 National Teacher of the Year, at a ceremony to honor the 2021 State and National Teachers of the Year, on the South Lawn of the White House Oct. 18.
First lady Jill Biden stands beside Juliana Urtubey, 2021 National Teacher of the Year, at a ceremony to honor the 2020 and 2021 State and National Teachers of the Year at the White House on Monday.
Evan Vucci/AP
Teaching Profession Opinion Wellness Can't Be Just Another Task for Teachers to Do
If we want teachers to remain in the profession, state departments of education, school districts, and parent groups must step up.
Beth Pandolpho
4 min read
Vibrant hand drawn illustration depicting mindfulness concept
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Teaching Profession Thousands of Teachers Who Were Denied Loan Forgiveness Will Get a Second Chance
A settlement between the American Federation of Teachers and the U.S. Department of Education establishes a review process for borrowers.
4 min read
Teaching Profession Teachers May See Student Loans Forgiven Under New Ed. Dept. Changes
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, long criticized for its complicated and poorly communicated processes, is getting an overhaul.
4 min read
Image of Money, Benjamin Franklin Close Up
Getty