State schools earn C for their attempts to improve teaching

Foundation finds lack of accountability

score exceeds national average

November 16, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland's efforts to boost teacher quality received a grade of C yesterday from a school-reform research group, which said there is too little accountability across the state and nation for teachers and principals.

But the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation praised Maryland for its programs to hire teachers from places other than traditional college education schools, and the state's grade was above the national average of D-plus.

"Maryland is one of the friendliest states in the nation to would-be teachers," said the foundation's report, titled "The Quest for Better Teachers: Grading the States." "However, with meager accountability its teacher-quality system breaks down once they enter the classroom."

The report from the Washington-based foundation, which supports both vouchers and charter schools, handed out only two A's -- to Texas and Florida -- and seven B's. Thirteen states earned F's.

Many of the low grades were tied to the of school-level control over personnel decisions in most states.

"Principals should be able to hire and fire teachers, and almost no states have done at all well in that area," said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the foundation and an Education Department official in the Reagan administration. He said giving principals such power would help increase achievement.

A Maryland education official noted that 37 states, including Maryland, received failing grades in that category, and only one state received a B.

"I guess we have some pretty good company," said Ronald A. Peiffer, assistant superintendent for school and community outreach. "We need to approach the issue [of giving principals power over hiring] pretty carefully."

The foundation's report and state-by-state grades were based on its research over the past year into improving teacher quality -- and Finn said that its conclusions "run contrary to conventional wisdom" that increasing state regulations and requirements will produce better teachers.

States were judged on four main areas: whether accountability for schools, principals and teachers is tied to student achievement; school-level control over hiring teachers; teachers' knowledge in the subjects they teach; and alternatives to education degrees for would-be teachers.

While Maryland's testing program has often been called a national model, the foundation gave the state a grade of D for accountability. It praised the state for school-level testing but criticized it for a lack of such options as vouchers or charter schools, neither of which have gained much momentum in Maryland in the 1990s.

"If you are comfortable only with top-down accountability, then you would be satisfied with what Maryland is doing," said Michael J. Petrilli, the foundation's research director. "If you believe that marketplace accountability is also needed, then you won't be satisfied."

Maryland was praised by the foundation for its requirement that teachers pass both basic skills and subject-matter exams, and for financial incentives such as signing bonuses and scholarships for new, highly qualified teachers. The national teacher exam scores required by the state for certification are among the highest in the country.

"Teacher quality has been a priority for this state for the past several years," Peiffer said. "That is reflected here [on the survey], because we have high expectations for new teachers."

While states across the country work to boost teacher quality, many -- including Maryland -- also are grappling with a growing shortage of teachers because of increasing student enrollment and a wave of retirements among baby-boomer teachers.

The foundation's report says that standards for new teachers need not be lowered just because more teachers will be needed. "If you go around the country and visit private schools and charter schools, there's a line around the block with qualified teachers," Finn said. "If you deregulated entry and didn't have so many hoops and hurdles for prospective teachers, you would have a very much larger pool."

The foundation's report is available on the Internet at www.edexcellence.net.

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