Not good enough

Our view: The Gates Foundation rejection of Maryland's request for help in applying for federal Race to the Top funds was a wake-up call for long-overdue reforms

December 14, 2009

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick finally seems to have seen the light regarding the sweeping changes Maryland must make to improve its schools - even though it took a stiff rebuff from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to deliver the message. If officials get serious about reforms that will keep Maryland competitive with other states, then it may be the best rejection letter we've ever received.

Last week, the foundation turned down Maryland's application for a grant to help it seek millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top funds, money earmarked for states with a serious commitment to school reform. The main sticking point appears to have been the state's outdated policy on tenure, which allows teachers to get lifetime appointments after only two years on the job. But there are a whole range of other issues on which the state is ill-prepared to compete for Race to the Top dollars.

Until the Gates Foundation's response, Ms. Grasmick had insisted that Maryland was well-positioned in the federal competition. But on Thursday, she announced she would seek to lengthen the time it takes teachers to earn tenure; she also proposed linking teacher evaluations to student performance and requiring teachers' unions to bargain over incentive pay in subjects like math and science, where there is a shortage of instructors.

That's a good start, and Ms. Grasmick deserves the full support of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly. As a practical matter, it's already too late for Maryland to meet the mid-January application deadline for the first round of Race to the Top awards. None of the spadework involving rallying support in the legislature and meeting with parents, school principals and the unions has even begun, and lawmakers will just be returning to Annapolis by then. Ms. Grasmick says she'll hold off until the next application cycle later in the year, when the state might stand a better chance.

Ms. Grasmick's proposals would help Maryland put a more competitive proposal on the table. But why stop there? To get ahead of the pack, it won't be enough to just nibble around the edges on teacher tenure and pay. To be effective, reforms need to cut deeper, starting with the state's ineffectual charter school law, which needs to be thoroughly overhauled if Maryland is to create a more favorable environment for the kind of innovative schools that recently have helped Baltimore students achieve impressive gains on achievement tests.

The current ban on state funding for capital projects at charter schools, for example, ought to be lifted, both to help establish new schools and so that administrators at successful schools can upgrade their facilities and expand the number of children they serve. The law also needs to be strengthened to allow the creation of an independent, statewide authority that can approve new charter schools; too often, local school systems have blocked new charter school applications for no other reason than that they didn't want the competition.

The state also must find ways to add more flexibility to alternative pathways for teacher certification to ensure the broadest possible pool of motivated, qualified instructors. In the past, Ms. Grasmick has boasted of dozens of new pathways the state has opened to allow beginning teachers to get certified. But in fact, the doors have remained shut to all but a handful of those applying. The system is still clogged with unreasonable course distribution requirements and bureaucratic red tape that keep well-prepared candidates from entering the vocation. If Maryland is to move ahead, it's got to recruit the best and brightest for its classrooms, not hang out a "No help wanted" sign.

Readers respond
Linking teacher pay to student performance is a terrible idea. Every day I do battle with the factors that lead to student underperformance: apathy, laziness, truancy, limited resources and the sense that many students have that the payoff for all the work they are asked to do will not be there for them in the end.

Sometimes I win, and the students go on to higher education and hopefully career success. Sometimes the lure of easy money on the the streets is too strong to overcome, and my best efforts are not enough.

If you want to improve student performance in Baltimore, take the money you would spend on these proposed bonuses and use it to give our best students career-advancing, moneymaking opportunities so that they can help themselves and their families financially by staying focused on their studies, things like paid internships or trade apprenticeships. It is the students who need incentives, not the teachers.

If someone were to bother asking me what the state should do with all of that federal money, I would call for comprehensive, standardized testing in each discipline. That way you will have a before and an after measurement to really mark their progress.

J.B. Salganik, Baltimore

The writer is a history teacher at Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore.

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