Maryland education officials laid out a broad vision Tuesday for improving the state's schools and teaching corps, pledging to put the best educators in struggling classrooms while making them more accountable for performance and boosting emphasis on science, math and technoglogy courses.
The promises came in a 257-page application that Maryland plans to submit to the U.S. Department of Education this year in a bid for a $250 million slice of $4 billion in federal school reform money known as Race to the Top funding.
The long-awaited document — which comes shortly after more than 40 states were rejected during the first round of reform grants — spells out how Maryland would spend its money if selected for the competitive program.
Maryland is "now committed to going from national leader to world-class — not only for some students but for all students," the application says.
Education advocates said Tuesday that they liked the ideas in the proposal, but criticized the state for suggesting certain shifts in education policy that could be unpopular with teachers unions and some school boards, rather than requiring them outright.
"The plan is both lacking in substance overall and the ideas in it are not bold. They do not go nearly far enough to address achievement gaps," said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth.
"I would say it is a good plan, but not a winning plan," said Andy Smarick, a visiting fellow at theThomas B. Fordham Institute who has analyzed a number of Race to the Top applications.
Local school districts — which now must digest the huge document — will be asked to sign the application by April 23 and pledge to carry out proposed reforms.
Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said his district was ready to sign on and that he believed the county was well-positioned to implement the changes.
"This is more an attitude than anything else," he said. "It is a matter of whether individuals are willing to respond to the goals."
Officials in Montgomery County, the state's largest school district, said they are reviewing the document and will give feedback, but no decision has been made as to whether the county will support it.
Despite its high national schools rankings, Maryland was one of only a handful of states not submitting an application in the first round of Race to the Top funding. Part of the delay came because some officials wanted changes in teacher tenure, evaluations and charter school laws to make its bid more competitive.
Only Delaware and Tennessee were chosen from the more than three dozen states seeking money earlier this year. Most are expected to reapply, joining Maryland.
Maryland's draft application highlights several areas where the state wants to change its policies, particularly in how teachers and principals are evaluated.
Beginning in two years, teachers would be evaluated on a four-step scale ranging from a low of "ineffective" to a top rating of "highly effective." Fifty percent of a teacher's annual evaluation would be based on a student test that would try to measure growth over the year. In other words, a teacher who starts with students reading three years below grade level would be judged on whether her students had improved — and not whether they had made up three years of learning.
The four-level grading system would be a marked difference from most current evaluation plans. Nearly all of the state's 55,000 teachers receive a satisfactory rating each year, officials said.
Principals would also be judged on student progress.
Each district is being asked to work with its union to create a new evaluation system, outside of the collective bargaining process. If the union and the administration can't reach an agreement within six months, then the local district will have to use the state system.
A bill adopted during the last day of the Maryland General Assembly session this week dictates that student achievement would be a significant factor in the new teacher evaluation system but removed the specific 50 percent figure under pressure from union officials and their allies.
But on Tuesday, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she would push harder and ask the state school board to pass a regulation that requires student assessments to be 50 percent of the evaluation.
In addition, the application says the state will encourage school systems to teach foreign languages, including Chinese, Hindi and Arabic, in elementary school, and that it wants to pay more money to foreign-language teachers rated highly effective.
The state pledges to triple the number of science and math teachers and increase the number of science and math majors in colleges by 40 percent.