All good teachers, I learned early in my Prince George's County teaching career, ask students not to settle for short cuts and simple answers.
"Dig deeper," good teachers advise their students, "dig deeper."
Top officials at that Maryland State Department of Education would be wise to heed that advice. Unfortunately, in their chase after federal "Race to the Top" school reform funding, they're headed in the opposite direction. They're rushing to force our schools to adopt flashy short cuts that will only distract and dishearten our state's teachers and students.
Maryland actually started off fairly well in the Obama administration's new "Race to the Top" competitive grant program. Initially, instead of rushing to compete in the program's first round, Gov. Martin O'Malley chose to position the state for the long haul — by introducing legislation in Annapolis to reform how Maryland school systems handle everything from tenure and staff evaluations to interventions in failing schools.
The wisdom of this approach would quickly become evident. Only two of the 40 states that rushed in proposals for the first round of "Race to the Top" grants received any funding. And lawmakers in Annapolis, after considerable debate, passed a wide-ranging school reform package. These new reforms push the threshold for tenure from two to three years, promote more effective mentoring programs and encourage intervention plans that can use extra stipends to attract high-quality teachers and principals.
The new reforms out of Annapolis also make evaluation systems for school professionals more thorough and rigorous and require evaluators to consider student growth as a "significant" evaluation criterion.
But amid this progress, we've had one naysayer: state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. During the legislative debate, the state superintendent made a series of demands on lawmakers. She insisted that the new evaluation plan be developed by the state Education Department, not through collaboration at the local level. She also insisted, among other demands, on a state mandate that student growth make up a specific 50 percent of any teacher evaluation, rather than allowing some flexibility for local school systems to customize their evaluation systems to best meet their local needs.
Her rationale? Anything less than her approach, she argued, would kill the state's chances for winning Race to the Top funding. Interestingly, Delaware, one of only two winning states to receive federal funds, did not include 50 percent standard in its application.
In Annapolis, lawmakers considered the state superintendent's point — and explicitly rejected it. In our schools, lawmakers agreed, this fixed 50 percent mandate makes no sense.
For one thing, no research has ever demonstrated any magic to a 50 percent standard. On the other hand, research has shown that a fixation on this standard could jeopardize our educational future.
In New York City, for instance, a recent report indicates that teachers with six to 10 years of experience registered the best student improvement rates when researchers looked at student growth as measured by standardized test scores. The students of teachers with one or two years experience, not surprisingly, showed the least test score improvement.
If we were to devote half of a new teacher's evaluation to student test score results, we could well end up with "unsatisfactory" evaluations for most new teachers, most likely drumming out of the teaching profession most of our brand new, potentially most promising teachers.
The legislature had a much better alternative. We recognized the value of student growth — by making this growth a "significant component" of all evaluations — and coupled this standard with comprehensive support for all new teachers.
This approach works. I know. I was among those that developed the nationally recognized evaluation program in Montgomery County that takes this direction. Montgomery County sets six high standards for all teachers — employing student achievement and growth data in these standards — and provides systematic support for all new teachers as well as older teachers deemed "at risk" by the evaluation process.
The Montgomery County system has been a success. But such success stories might quickly end if the state were able to impose a fixed 50 percent standard on all teacher evaluations.
And that's just what Ms. Grasmick appears intent on doing. The day after the state legislature passed the governor's initiative and rejected the 50 percent rule, the state superintendent released the draft of her new Race to the Top application. A key component of that application: a requirement that evaluations be based on the just-rejected "50 percent" formula. State law, it seems, is to be ignored.