Race to the Top reforms won’t be easy to implement, particularly teacher evaluations

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By Len Lazarick

The federal education department gave Maryland a $250 million grant Tuesday to implement school reforms designed to improve the performance of both students and teachers.

But a testy exchange between school superintendents and representatives of the teachers union on Saturday showed that actually putting the changes in place may be contentious and difficult to achieve, particularly new standards for evaluating teachers.

“I worry that teachers will be evaluated for factors beyond their control,” said Betty Weller, vice president of the Maryland State Education Association.  Once a new measure is developed for judging how teachers perform, “let’s make sure it’s not used in a punitive manner. … I don’t think it should be held as a sledgehammer over teachers.”

Weller, a middle school teacher from Kent County, was responding to presentations at the Maryland Association of Counties conference by state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick and Washington County Schools Superintendent Betty Morgan about how a new system of teacher evaluations might work.

Gov. Martin O’Malley named Weller on Aug. 6 to co-chair the Maryland Council for Educator Effectiveness, which he created in June to develop the new evaluation system.

The governor put six teachers or their representatives on the 21-member council, which Grasmick will co-chair with Weller.

Grasmick was already developing her own plan for assessing teacher performance, with 30% of the score based on “student performance as determined by the state” and another 20% based on student performance as determined by the local school system “in collaboration with their bargaining unit [union].”

Weller is concerned that 50% of a teacher evaluation could be tied to test scores on high-stakes student exams.

“Teachers want accountability,” Weller said, but “the subjects that we teach do not stand alone,” and tests do not account for factors outside the classroom.

She said such tests could be like judging a doctor based on the results of a patient’s physical exam.

Morgan, the Washington County superintendent, bristled at the notion that teachers shouldn’t be held accountable for how they much they are able to improve the learning of a child that came to school ill-prepared for some reason.

Washington County model

“Every child can and will learn if challenged and held to higher standards,” she said.

Morgan, who was named 2010 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators,  has developed an elaborate system of student assessments, which are compiled in conjunction with teacher evaluations. A special group of student achievement specialists work with the teachers in crunching the numbers and improving how the student is taught.

Morgan said the program is not just to help students learn more and improve teaching, but it is also “accountability to taxpayers.”

“They’re handing over a lot of money,” Morgan said. “Our taxpayers want to know that when we’re handing out a diploma that the student is not reading at a 5th grade level.”

She said ultimately she’d like to see pay differentials for teachers who want to work harder or longer to make more money, as people do in the private sector.

She noted that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is also a strong supporter of teacher pay based on performance. “It’s something he believes in very deeply,” she said.

Cheryl Bost, the president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County whom O’Malley also appointed to the new council, also pressed Morgan on how her system measured student growth. In an interview on WBAL radio Tuesday, she said she wants any new evaluation program to be “a fair process.”

“We need to make sure that we’re held accountable,” Bost said, “ but we don’t want to drive teachers out of the profession.”

Improving teacher performance is only one aspect of Race to the Top plan that won Maryland the grant. It also includes establishing a new national Common Core curriculum that will be shared by the states based on international standards. There will also be a heavy investment in technology that will allow student achievement to be tracked individually over the entire time a student is in school, from pre-K through college. Finally, the Breakthrough Center project to turn around low-achieving schools will be expanded.

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