Maryland proposes education reforms for Race to the Top competition

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Maryland education officials charted a reform path Tuesday that would overhaul statewide exams, make student performance a factor in teacher evaluations and toughen graduation requirements in math and science. They hope their proposal will make the state eligible for millions of dollars in federal education aid.

The 257-page proposal is the draft of an application for President Obama's $4 billion Race to the Top competition. Maryland is seeking to win as much as $250 million.

But most of the plan's components will be implemented whether or not the money comes through, which makes the proposal a glimpse of the state's major education initiatives over the next several years.

"These are reform efforts that are going to continue to move us forward into the future," said State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick.

The proposal -- the draft of which leaves some specifics, including cost, unaddressed -- must be submitted to the Education Department by June 1. It includes as a major component the education law passed Monday by the state legislature, which will make teachers wait three years instead of two before they become tenured.

The new law also will allow student test scores to be used as a "significant" component of teacher evaluations.

The proposal makes plans for the State Board of Education to adopt new nationally developed "common core" standards in math and reading as soon as May. That would require revising statewide assessments as well, leading to changes in instruction and testing in every math and reading classroom in the state.

The plan also would mandate that every Maryland high school student take four years of math, including Algebra II, and would increase the emphasis on science and technology education.

It follows Louisiana's lead in basing evaluations of teacher training programs on the subsequent performance of each teacher's students. It offers extra money to teachers and principals in low-income schools, though it leaves specifics up to local school districts.

Education advocates question whether Maryland has much chance of winning any federal money.

Just two states, Delaware and Tennessee, won funding in the initial round of Race to the Top, and their proposals involved more extensive change than is contained in Maryland's draft. Maryland educators have argued that the state's well-regarded schools make drastic change less necessary, and in the application they detailed past reforms.

"It's just not going far enough," said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, an education advocacy organization. "We're looking for ideas that are specific and substantive." He criticized the plan for leaving certain policy changes up to local districts.

An education advocate who has been tracking all states' Race to the Top proposals said Maryland's went further than he had expected, but he doesn't think it will win.

"This is a good plan, but it's not a winning plan," said Andy Smarick of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank dedicated to improving K-12 schools.

Local school districts, teachers unions and advocacy groups now have a chance to comment on the draft. The assent of local districts and unions is a criterion by which Race to the Top proposals are judged.

The Maryland teachers union's chief lobbyist, Diana Saquella, said she still is reviewing the full draft but was satisfied with the legislation passed Monday.

Many local districts, including Prince George's County, indicated Tuesday that they plan to sign on to the proposal. But officials with Montgomery County Public Schools, the state's largest, highest-performing district, said they were still reviewing the proposal.

"We have concerns," said Montgomery Board of Education President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). She said the school system is happy with its programs for evaluating teachers and ensuring that high-quality teachers are in low-income schools.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company