School reform baby steps

Our view: Maryland may be No. 1 in the nation on the Advanced Placement exams, but the state is still struggling to come from behind in the Race to the Top

February 14, 2010

A report that Maryland students ranked first in the nation in the percentages of high school seniors taking and passing Advanced Placement exams comes just as Gov. Martin O'Malley is set to announce his legislative proposals for making the state more competitive for millions of dollars in new federal education funds. But it's too early for congratulations just yet. Maryland's high ranking on the AP exams masks glaring disparities between the state's best- and worst-performing school districts, and the legislative package the governor is proposing will need to be scrutinized closely on key elements, notably those involving charter schools, where the state still needs to demonstrate its commitment to education reform.

It's a sign of definite progress that Governor O'Malley, who recently bristled at the notion that Maryland was ill-prepared to compete for federal school dollars under the nationwide Race to the Top program, has been working with teachers unions in recent weeks to get their agreement on legislation to reform the state's educational system.

The governor's package would extend the minimum time teachers are required to serve before being awarded tenure from two years to three, a change that would bring Maryland more in line with the rest of the nation; 38 states already require teachers to work at least three years before getting tenure, and eight states require more than that.

Though there's nothing magic about these numbers, extending the time teachers serve before receiving lifetime appointments gives principals and administrators more time to evaluate their effectiveness and to weed out those who don't belong in the classroom. Mr. O'Malley's proposal would mandate additional professional development and mentoring for teachers who were still experiencing difficulties in the third year on the job. Both changes help the state meet Race to the Top requirements.

The governor's proposals also provide for setting aside a portion of any Race to the Top funds the state wins for extra pay to highly effective teachers who volunteer to work in the state's lowest-performing schools. The idea is to spread teaching talent around more equitably so that the most needy schools also have a chance to attract the best teachers. Although the governor's legislation doesn't directly address the issue of merit pay for teachers in hard-to-staff subjects such as science and math, aides say the state already has a mechanism to provide additional incentives for instructors in these areas.

In separate legislation introduced earlier this year, the governor called for the creation of a statewide longitudinal data system that would track the performance of students and teachers from kindergarten through college and the workplace. That system would integrate several currently separate databases to give a more complete picture of how students are relating to their teachers and how well teachers are responding to their training. It would also provide an objective measure of individual classroom teachers' effectiveness for use in evaluating their performance.

One key area where Maryland now falls short, however, is in lowering the barriers to establishing new charter schools and easing restrictions on funding capital projects at such schools. Baltimore City has made significant progress toward raising student achievement levels by replacing failing public schools with new charter and transformation schools that have the support of students and parents, and Virginia's new governor, Robert F. McDonnell, has made expanding charter schools a centerpiece of his legislative agenda this year.

Yet outside of Baltimore and a few pilot programs around the state, charter schools hardly figure in Maryland's education reform effort, and Mr. O'Malley's package is silent on the subject. Aides say the governor believes the state's current charter school law is adequate because Maryland is already well-positioned in most other areas to attract federal funds and because even the U.S. Department of Education recently softened its emphasis on charter schools vis-a-vis other types of innovation schools.

But given that Maryland is already far behind most other states in the application process, it can't afford to ignore any options that might give it a better shot at winning those funds. Not to mention that charter schools have proven effective enough to warrant expansion, even if federal funds weren't involved. At this stage, it's going to be tough enough to persuade the feds that we're serious about embracing change. It will be harder still if the state continues to insist that students in its worst-performing schools don't really need the kind of innovative alternatives that publicly funded, independently run charter schools can offer.

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