By Nick Anderson and Michael Birnbaum
Saturday, February 20, 2010; B01
The lure of $4 billion in federal funding at a time of fiscal peril has driven state after state toward school reforms long considered politically unlikely, undoable or unthinkable. This week, Maryland provided the latest surprise: Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is seeking union support for reelection, proposed tighter rules for teachers to qualify for tenure and opened the door to broader use of test scores to evaluate them.
Many teachers view such policies with deep skepticism despite a national movement to overhaul public education's seniority system. Until recently, there was no reason to think Maryland would join the movement because the state has high-performing public schools and strong unions. O'Malley (D) initially hesitated to propose any changes. But the governor shifted course, hoping to boost Maryland's chances at snaring as much as $250 million in President Obama's Race to the Top competition.
"Who fights money?" asked Clara Floyd, president of the Maryland State Education Association, a teachers union.
The contest has catalyzed action from coast to coast to expand charter schools, lay the groundwork for teacher performance pay, revise employee evaluation methods and even consider the first common academic standards. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), also seeking reelection, said it added up to too much federal intrusion in local affairs and pulled his state out of the competition. But O'Malley aims for Maryland to apply in June.
O'Malley consulted with unions on the proposal to extend to three years what is now a two-year probationary period for new teachers and require annual evaluations of teachers to include "data on student growth" as a "significant component." Union leaders support the proposal because of a provision that would require additional mentoring for teachers at risk of not receiving tenure. If the state wins federal funding, O'Malley also proposes stipends for high-performing teachers and principals who choose to work at struggling schools in poor neighborhoods. The initiative awaits action in the state legislature.
The federal competition was not necessarily the only catalyst for Maryland. Late last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation turned down a state request for funding to help prepare a Race to the Top application, according to Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick. The foundation expressed concern, she said, that Maryland law makes it too easy for teachers to obtain tenure. Foundation officials declined to comment.
O'Malley said the reforms would strengthen a state school system that has placed highly in national rankings.
"If we're not moving forward, we're slipping back," O'Malley said. But he added: "I don't suspect many children will see the changes or notice them."
Other states have gone further than O'Malley. A law enacted last year in Ohio lengthened the probationary period for teachers from three years to seven, the longest such term in the nation, according to the nonpartisan National Council on Teacher Quality in the District.
"We want to increase the rigor and expectations for teachers," Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) said. "Some people just should not be in the classroom. We believe this will make it possible for us to strengthen and encourage and hold on to good teachers, and it will also give us an opportunity earlier on in the teaching career of some of these folks to counsel them out or encourage them to take their skills elsewhere than in the classroom."
Seven states set the probationary term at four or five years. In Virginia and 31 others, the threshold for tenure is three years of experience. In the District, it is two. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said she would prefer the term to be at least three years.
In addition, Louisiana, Florida, Colorado and a handful of other states have pledged in their Race to the Top bids to make student academic growth data account for at least half of a teacher's evaluation. Rhee, a prominent advocate of data-driven reform, is beginning to evaluate some teachers on that criterion. Such measures could influence which teachers reach tenure.
In K-12 education, gaining tenure generally means that a teacher has continuing contract status, rather than a year-to-year arrangement, with more due-process protection in disciplinary and termination cases. That makes tenure a significant career milestone. But tenured schoolteachers do not have the same job security as tenured university professors.
For unions, tenure reform is a delicate issue. Labor leaders do not want to be perceived as guardians of ineffective teachers. Nor do they want to lose hard-won legal protections as they seek to raise standards for their profession.
Scott Smith, a third-year English teacher at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, said the tenure protections that he won last year eliminated a source of stress.
"If a lesson just doesn't go well," he said, "I make the change and move on." Before gaining tenure, he said, "you stress about, 'Does this not just affect the kids, but does it affect my job?' "
Policymakers and educators say that tenure denial is rare and that far more teachers are counseled out of the profession within the first few years of their careers, before tenure decisions are made.
Data from Prince George's County show there are about 1,600 third-year teachers this school year, according to a county schools spokeswoman, compared with more than 2,000 when that group started working in county schools in 2007. In all likelihood, many of the departed teachers found work elsewhere. Three of the departures were because of tenure denials.