Bill targets 'Race to Top' contest's goals

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Maryland teachers will have to wait three years before they earn tenure and some will receive additional mentoring during their probation period under a bill approved Monday night in the state legislature.

The measure is intended to strengthen Maryland's application for as much as $250 million in federal education stimulus money under President Obama's "Race to the Top" competition.

The bill is a compromise between Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and the state's powerful teachers unions. It leaves undefined how student performance and test scores will be used in evaluating teachers and increases the local unions' role in structuring evaluations. Educators also might be rewarded for working at low-income schools, but those decisions will be left to school districts and teachers unions.

Teachers unions and others said that the new personnel rules would improve the quality of education and leave hard-won job protections in place. But some education reform advocates said that the revisions weakened what was already a modest plan and put Maryland at risk of not winning money in the federal competition.

"Hopefully this will improve education in the state," said state Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Senate Education Committee and an employee of the Montgomery County teachers union, who led the effort to modify O'Malley's initial plan.

The change in tenure would bring Maryland, where teachers receive the job protection after two years, in line with other states, most of which put teachers on probation for three years. And it would make student performance a component of teacher evaluations while leaving undefined precisely how big a role standardized test scores and other measures would play. It also would increase mentoring programs for teachers at risk of failing to earn tenure.

Tenured schoolteachers do not have the same job security as university professors. In K-12 education, gaining tenure generally means that a teacher has continuing contract status, with due-process protection in disciplinary and termination cases.

Some education reformers said they were disappointed by aspects of the bill.

"It's still a pretty tame, modest proposal compared to what other states have done," said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, a Maryland education advocacy organization. "We're pretty pessimistic about the state's chances" of winning federal money.

The Education Department appears to be giving significant weight to union support for proposals for Race to the Top funding, but the two states that won grants in the initial round of competition also revamped their educational policies more extensively than has Maryland.

Many Maryland teachers unions, educators and politicians have argued that the state's schools are generally well-regarded and need less change than those in other parts of the country.

A proposal that would have used public funds to support struggling private schools died in committee Monday night. The bill also failed in the previous two legislative sessions.

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