Md. superintendents criticize implementation of school reforms

(Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)
(Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

Nearly all of the superintendents of Maryland school districts have signed a statement that criticizes federal and state education officials for forcing them to implement several major reforms, including the Common Core State Standards, on what they say is an unrealistic timetable.

The document, approved by 22 of Maryland’s 24 superintendents from districts educating more than 800,000 students, asks for more time and resources to put the reforms in place, including the use of new Common Core tests expected in the 2014-2015 school year. The statement (which you can read here) represents the first time that such a high percentage of schools chiefs in Maryland have come together to publicly call out education officials over school reform.

“Parents, elected officials, community leaders and pundits are reacting sometimes with alarm as local school systems throughout the state deal with the challenges of implementing the many components of education reform,” says the document, obtained by The Washington Post. Carl Roberts, executive director of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland and a former superintendent, organized the joint statement but would not identify the two superintendents who did not sign on.

Though affirming that they wholeheartedly support the Common Core standards as “a more rigorous path through pre-kindergarten to grade twelve for all students,” the superintendents wrote that there are serious problems with the introduction of the reforms. They specifically cited the fact that Maryland plans to continue using an outdated test — the Maryland School Assessments — while the state has shifted to a new curriculum that isn’t aligned with the old test. They also said it is inappropriate for new test-based teacher evaluations and accountability measures to roll out before the reforms have been fully put in place.

William Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said he could not comment on the document because he has not seen it.

The superintendents’ voices join growing protests among educators and parents against some education reforms championed by the Obama administration and adopted by most states. The roll-out of new curricula and new tests — aimed at creating a uniform national standard by which all students can be compared — has led to confusion in classrooms and has stirred political opposition from both the right and the left.

President Obama made a subtle reference to the growing opposition to the Common Core in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, noting that “change is hard.”

The Obama administration’s signature reform vehicles have been Race to the Top — which offered federal funds in exchange for promises from states to make specific reforms — and through a program that provides states promising to enact specific reforms federal “waivers” from the most onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 education law that launched the high-stakes standardized testing era.

Standardized test scores have increasingly been used for the purposes of evaluating students, teachers, principals, schools, districts and states, leading to a sharp rise in the number of tests and time spent on testing and test preparation in the classroom. And with new standards rolling out, educators are concerned that expected drops in scores could affect their job security.

Last June, Education Secretary Arne Duncan responded to educators’ concerns by saying that nearly 40 states that have received federal waivers from No Child Left Behind can delay for a year, to the 2016-2017 school year, when they have to start using student scores from new Common Core-aligned tests to evaluate teachers.

Until now, the most outspoken Maryland superintendent has been Joshua P. Starr in Montgomery County, who became nationally known in 2012 when he called for a three-year moratorium on high-stakes standardized tests. Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent Terry Alban, who is the association’s secretary, said she and her colleagues have been talking about these issues for a long time and felt it was time to publicly state their concerns.

“New curriculum in Math and English Language Arts, new assessments, new teacher evaluations and new school accountability measures are being implemented simultaneously in Maryland schools to fulfill commitments associated with federal grant programs from the United States Department of Education (USDE),” the document says. “As one might imagine with such change of this magnitude, educators, including teachers and administrators, are feeling a bit overwhelmed.”

The schools chiefs said that they are proud that the state ranks No. 1 in some rankings of educational excellence, and that they “generally support Maryland’s needed educational reform efforts.”

But they said it was wrong for federal and state officials to require districts to implement major reforms at the same time, and they asked for some flexibility. They also directly addressed the test-driven accountability movement by cautioning that trying to address “perceived deficiencies” with public education in Maryland and across the country simply by requiring new standards and tests will not address “the crisis” faced by students who live in poverty.

“There are a lot of complex factors that these reforms by themselves are not addressing,” Alban said.

Superintendents said that school reformers seem to be sending a message that everything is wrong with public education and needs to be fixed. “It’s troubling for me to hear those things and know that I am running a quality system,” said Steve Guthrie, superintendent of Carroll County Public Schools and president-elect of the association.

Key points in the document:

* The superintendents said it is “counterintuitive” to require Maryland to administer the long-used MSA test while at the same time promoting Common Core implementation. Lillian Lowery, the Maryland education commissioner, already has turned down requests from educators to drop the MSA from being given this spring.

* They expressed concern about the Common Core standardized tests that are being designed by a consortium of states and are to be administered online. The superintendents said some districts don’t have the technological capability to give thousands of tests on computers.

* They asked for additional time and resources from both the U.S. Education Department and the Maryland Department of Education “to ensure the successful implementation of the PARCC Assessment schedule.”

* They expressed concern about using student standardized test scores as a chief metric to evaluate teachers and principals. They ask for a delay in the requirement that PARCC test scores be used to evaluate educators until “such time that the results provide valid and reliable data.”

(Update: Adding link to text of document)

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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