Maryland educators surely were elated by the U.S. Department of Education's announcement Tuesday that the state will be awarded $250 million in federal school aid from the Obama administration's Race to the Top contest, which frankly came as something of a surprise to many observers.
During the first round of the competition back in January, Maryland had been such a long shot to win a share of the $3.4 billion in federal largess — created by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to encourage states to implement sweeping school reform — that state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick thought it wiser to not even apply. As things turned out, that may have been just as well; of the 40 states that did participate in that first round, only two, Tennessee and Delaware, emerged as winners.
That result signaled the government intended to hold states to a tougher standard than many expected, and that the changes it was looking for went deeper than just cosmetic. The two winning states had distinguished themselves not only by having updated their systems for tracking students' progress and enacting new laws on charter schools, tenure and teacher evaluations, but by going the extra mile to persuade all the major stakeholders in their systems — local superintendents and school boards, school administrators and the teachers unions — to buy into the need for thoroughgoing reform.
To their credit, Ms. Grasmick and Gov. Martin O'Malley took those lessons to heart, realizing that Maryland couldn't afford to simply rest on its laurels from having been named No. 1 in Education Week magazine's annual survey of state public school systems. They pushed hard in this year's General Assembly for changes in the law that extended the time teachers must serve before getting tenure from two years to three, and for the first time got legislative approval to link 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation to student achievement.
In other areas, however, they weren't so successful. The state's weak charter school law makes it too easy for local jurisdictions to reject new charter school applications, and that remains unchanged. And while the data management systems that track student progress are improving, they're still far from state of the art. Meanwhile, it's still not clear whether Montgomery County, the state's largest school system, is fully on board; the county generally has excellent schools, but administrators and the teachers union there have given only lukewarm support to the idea of tying teacher evaluations — and pay — to student performance.
The fact that Maryland managed to win a Race to the Top award despite this unfinished business suggests that its strengths in other areas and its evident commitment to innovation and reform were still enough to put it over the top. (The other winners were Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia.) This is an achievement in which all Marylanders can take pride, but it doesn't mean we can rest easy. On the contrary, now is the time to roll up our sleeves for challenges that still lie ahead if we are to make meaningful school reform a reality for Maryland children.