How the Maryland board of education can win Race to the Top

By Matthew Joseph
Silver Spring
Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Post has been right to chastise Maryland for weak proposed school reforms and to encourage the Maryland State Board of Education to take bold action. So far, the state has not done nearly enough to win a $250 million federal Race to the Top grant or to close large, widening achievement gaps.

Ironically, Montgomery County is undermining reform efforts on two inconsistent fronts. First, the county's teachers union, through one of its employees, State Sen. Paul Pinsky, succeeded in watering down state legislation to strengthen teacher evaluations and encourage strong staffers to work in struggling schools. Meanwhile, the county school system may refuse to support the state's Race to the Top application because the proposed reforms are too weak. The district has not made a final decision and is scheduled to take up the issue Tuesday.

These actions leave the state in a bind about how to strengthen the proposed reforms without alienating school districts. The current Race to the Top application does not link teacher performance to tenure, compensation, promotion or continued employment, a major factor in the grant competition. The failure of a major school district to sign off on the application will also cost the state points. The final application is due June 1.

The best strategy would be for the State Board of Education to take decisive action and to make it clear that these reforms will take place regardless of whether the state gets the federal grant. This will leave little incentive for districts or teachers unions to withhold support for the Race to the Top application. The policies will apply statewide regardless, and districts and unions that refuse to sign up will simply lose out on federal funding.

Already, the board of education has proposed making student growth count for 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation. But every state in serious contention for a Race to the Top grant will make a similar commitment. The board must go much further to move from being in contention to being a probable winner.

Without any change in law, the board can make clear that it will allow teachers to keep their licenses only if they can show they are raising student achievement. This would enable districts to quickly remove ineffective teachers. Right now, it is virtually impossible to fire incompetent teachers. Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast claimed recently in The Baltimore Sun that his school system does not have this problem, but last year the county fired only two tenured teachers for incompetence.

The state board can also tell districts to either place good staff members in failing schools or close the schools. This will give districts the leverage they need to get union support for incentives for principals and teachers who agree to work in more challenging schools. Right now, the highest-paid teachers in Montgomery County do not have to get near any disadvantaged students, and they don't.

Delaware and Tennessee won Race to the Top grants because they had bold proposals and still had near universal support from school districts and teachers unions.

Maryland should not chase after federal money. However, state Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has wisely said that the state cannot rest on its laurels and that too many students are still not achieving at rigorous levels. The same is true in Montgomery County.

Matthew Joseph is executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth.

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