The class dummy

Our view: Montgomery County's display of pique over tying teacher evaluations to test scores threatens Maryland's chance to win millions of dollars in federal school aid

May 27, 2010

Maryland's State Department of Education is set to submit its application next week for the second round of the federal Race to the Top competition, which could bring $250 million in new education funding to the state. But the effort is being threatened by a self-defeating display of pique on the part of Montgomery County schools officials and teachers unions from several of Maryland's large jurisdictions, who are refusing to sign on to the application because they object to its provisions for tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.

This would be bad enough if the dispute only involved the schools and teachers in those jurisdictions. But since the federal Race to the Top grants are awarded on a statewide basis, the naysayers are jeopardizing the chances of every other district in Maryland to take advantage of the federal largess at a time when budget cuts are threatening to turn back years of progress.

Maryland hasn't even taken up some of the more sweeping reforms that other states already have adopted, such as creating greater opportunities for charter schools or alternative certification for teachers. But the Montgomery County school district and several local unions are balking at even the relatively modest changes — particularly, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores — that the General Assembly approved this year.

What they expect to accomplish is hard to fathom. Montgomery County may be the state's largest school system, but it's behaving like the schoolyard bully who makes life miserable for everyone else when he can't get his way. Its refusal to sign off on the state's plan for teacher evaluations won't make it exempt from the requirement. That's a state law, and it will have to obey it, like it or not. But because the state's application will be judged in large part on its ability to demonstrate all its major stakeholders are solidly behind reform, the naysayers are throwing a monkey wrench in the works that could make it much less likely Maryland will be granted an award.

How important is the support of local school districts and teachers unions? Based on the results of the first round of the Race to the Top competition, it's crucial. The Obama administration wants to make sure the reform plans states submit will actually stick, and applicants that lack buy-in from all local stakeholders were treated with suspicion. The two states that won the first round of grants, Tennessee and Delaware, had full approval from local districts and unions, and that combination beat out states that submitted even more ambitious reform agendas but with less than full support.

And what, exactly, are the opponents objecting to? The General Assembly passed a law calling for student performance to be a "significant" component of teacher evaluations. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick proposed a regulation that would set the standard thus: 50 percent of the evaluation would be determined by local districts, using factors other than student performance; 20 percent would be determined by local districts using factors related to performance; and 30 percent would be set by the state based on student standardized test scores.

In the end, fully 70 percent of the evaluation will still be determined by local districts, and the teachers unions will have plenty of opportunity to influence the development of those standards. And since Montgomery County students, in particular, generally rank among the state's highest on standardized test scores, how much do teachers there really have to fear from having those scores reflected in their evaluations?

Montgomery County may turn up its nose at the new standards, believing that its system is better than anything the state could possibly come up with, but what it's objecting to really amounts to ceding control over 30 percent of the evaluation. And the price of its venting is steep — $12 million for a system that, at the same state school board meeting in which Superintendent Jerry D. Weast voiced his objections, asked for and received a waiver from a $51 million state fine levied because the county did not meet its annual education funding requirements.

Apparently Mr. Weast believes beggars can be choosers. But Maryland's poorer districts — notably Baltimore City and Prince George's County, which stand to gain the most from Race to the Top — can't afford to indulge the tantrums of the state's richest.

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