Grasmick calls for teacher changes

Linking test scores to teacher performance among proposals

December 11, 2009|By Liz Bowie | liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Maryland state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick made bold proposals Thursday to alter teacher compensation, tenure and evaluations - changes she said are needed to reform education and position the state to be competitive in applying for $250 million in federal stimulus money.

Speaking at a state school board meeting, Grasmick said the three proposals were sure to spur "lively discussion" in the coming months.

She proposed lengthening the time it takes teachers to receive tenure; linking teacher evaluations to student test scores; and requiring local unions to bargain over whether teachers can receive incentive pay to work in courses where there are shortages of instructors, such as science, math and foreign languages.

Several local superintendents went to the meeting Thursday to say they and their colleagues throughout the state support the changes.

Two of the three proposals - tenure and incentive pay - would require changes in Maryland law and would need Gov. Martin O'Malley or a lawmaker to introduce bills during the coming legislative session. The state school board decided Thursday to postpone Maryland's application for federal money until next summer, giving officials time to implement the ideas.

"I think the governor understands that some changes will be necessary, and we are still working out the details with the superintendent and the teachers union," said Rick Abbruzzese, the governor's spokesman.

He said the governor's office has had discussions with Grasmick's office and the unions in the effort to obtain the federal stimulus funds called Race to the Top. "We believe we are in a very competitive position, but it is a collaborative process," he said.

The U.S. Department of Education will give out $4 billion to a handful of states that are willing to make school reforms. In order to get the money, states are evaluated on a point system that grades the progressiveness of their education policies. The three changes Grasmick is seeking in law and regulation are areas that she believes would make the state more competitive.

The Maryland Education Association, which represents teachers in the state, reacted cautiously to the proposals. "We do have concerns about taking steps that would potentially derail the progress that Maryland has made in the past several years," said Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the MEA. "We are happy to sit down and talk to anyone ... but on the face of it, some of these proposals are things we should have concerns about."

Particularly, he said, he believes that tenure laws might not need to be changed because school systems have the means to get rid of teachers who aren't doing a good job. He pointed to a model program in Montgomery County, where 800 teachers have been "counseled out" of their positions.

The proposals, while significant for Maryland's 70,000 teachers, are not unique. California, New York and Wisconsin allow test scores to be linked to teacher performance.

While Maryland offers teachers tenure in as few as two years, Grasmick said the national average is three to seven years. Grasmick is proposing to increase the time period by one or two years, saying that demands on teachers have grown and those entering the profession need more support early in their careers.

Superintendents at the meeting Thursday agreed.

"School systems need more time to work with their new teachers," said Carl Roberts, head of the state superintendents association.

The state board also voted Thursday, at Grasmick's request, to delay Maryland's application for Race to the Top funds. The first round of requests is due in January, and she said that the state was not prepared to put together an application immediately.

"I am worried about doing a poor job," Grasmick said. "I think it would color the perception of Maryland."

Instead, she said, the state should wait to submit its application in June after the legislature has hashed out the proposals. She said the state does not "have closure on some of these thorny issues."

The state applied for a $200,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help write the application but was turned down because of concerns about the state's tenure law.

She said some of the proposed changes had been floated by superintendents over the past several months and should be implemented whether the Race to the Top money is on the table or not.

But Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso said the availability of federal money provides an incentive for the state to take immediate action on important reform issues.

The proposals were a surprising reversal of Grasmick's position several weeks ago, when she said she didn't see major stumbling blocks to competing for the federal funds. But since then, the Gates Foundation has turned down the Maryland request.

Grasmick also said she expects charter school advocates to push for legislation in the General Assembly session. She did not indicate whether the state would support such changes, but the federal government also has been encouraging states to have laws that are friendlier to charter schools. Maryland is considered to have a weak charter school law.

Proposed changes
Maryland state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick suggested three changes to teacher rules and laws:

• Increase the length of time before a new teacher gets tenure from two years to three or four years.

• Require unions to bargain over alternative pay such as giving teachers extra pay to teach subjects where there are shortages of instructors.

• Allow school districts to link teacher evaluations to student test scores.

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