Bogged down by political infighting, large gaps in technical know-how and regulatory hurdles, Maryland recently applied for a year’s extension to fully execute the evaluation system it has yet to develop.
“We knew this was going to be very difficult,” said state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, who is requesting that the evaluations not carry consequences for teachers and principals until 2013-14, so schools will have more time to train and experiment. “If it rolls out too soon, it won’t be done well, and there will be reactions from teachers that this is a half-baked idea.”
Eleven states and the District of Columbia mapped out dramatic plans for school improvement last year to win shares of the $4 billion Race to the Top fund that has catapulted the Obama administration’s reform agenda and inspired a national wave of changes to teacher tenure laws and evaluations.
Now the states that volunteered to be models are feeling the intense strain of delivering on their promises within ambitious timelines. And the architects of these high-profile experiments, which were forged amid intense political debate, are bracing themselves for heat.
A council comprised largely of school administrators, union members, and politicians in Maryland was convened in August and charged with developing a model evaluation system.
But the group quickly encountered the kind of questions that are vexing school systems nationwide: What is an effective teacher? Can standardized tests for students be fair measures for teachers? What can be used in place of tests in classes like kindergarten and music that don’t usually have them? And how do you isolate the impact of one teacher when students work with specialists or outside tutors?
The council’s initial December deadline was pushed back until June. A final plan is expected to be unveiled at the end of the month.
Although specifics are still unclear, an outline has emerged: Fifty percent will be based on student growth, including test scores and other measures, and the other 50 percent will take into account professional skills, such as how well teachers understand their subjects and how they interact with students and families.
In addition to standardized tests, districts will be able to choose from a list of state-approved options — including, potentially, portfolio-style tests and classroom observations. They also can develop some measures on their own.
Maryland’s request for more time is one of dozens of proposed Race to the Top amendments pending with the U.S. Department of Education. The agency has approved more than 100 changes, mostly minor adjustments to budgets or timelines.