Education reform coming to the suburbs
All school districts will begin a transition to new standards and teacher evaluation system
While some of the changes — which districts agreed to make in exchange for more federal funding — have faced resistance from teachers, others have already been embraced in classrooms.
The reforms, which will begin this fall and be completed by the 2014-2015 school year, are likely to represent some of the largest changes for public schools in the last decade, some educators say.
"It is a time of really significant change," said Anne Arundel County Superintendent Kevin Maxwell, adding that the coming changes are even more significant than those imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act.
Many of the new reforms are promoted by the U.S. Department of Education program called Race to the Top, which promised federal stimulus dollars in exchange for a promise of reforms. Maryland won $250 million in the competition.
While the promise of funding may be welcome at a time of strapped education budgets, certain districts benefit more than others and how well the changes are received is expected to vary across school systems. While Baltimore's CEO, Andrés Alonso, pushed for the state's Race to the Top application, Montgomery County never signed it.
Some suburban counties are being asked to implement the reforms even though they are getting a lesser share of the federal funding than poorer districts such as Baltimore City and Prince George's County. "The amounts of money going to the other districts are quite small," said Laura Weeldreyer, former deputy chief of staff for Alonso, who is now the Mid-Atlantic director for Expeditionary Learning.
Moreover, the changes come amid high turnover among top administrators. The state currently has an interim state superintendent and at least a quarter of local superintendents are new to the job.
And some educators are questioning the process. "Are these reforms working? Should they be pursued or should they be abandoned?" are questions that will be asked, said Adam Mendelson, spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing teachers in Maryland who work outside the city.
The changes coming in the next four years touch every grade and would allow for student achievement to be compared across state lines.
They include new national standards, a new Maryland curriculum tied to those standards, and a new test in core subjects that will allow students in Maryland to be compared with students in California or New York. A state data system also is planned to track students from pre-kindergarten through college, who taught them and how those teachers were trained. And a new teacher evaluation system would take into account how well students do on tests and work assignments.
Other measures may be added if Congress can agree on how to change the No Child Left Behind Act, which many educators agree needs to be rewritten.
The new national standards, being called the Common Core Standards because they have been voluntarily adopted by more than 40 states, are getting rave reviews from many Maryland teachers. But the new evaluation system will be much more problematic. The questions largely concern the portion of the evaluation that will be based on student improvement during the school year.
"Teacher evaluation. That is the most controversial in the room," said Bernard J. Sadusky, the interim state superintendent of schools. "How do we measure that fairly and what instruments are we going to use," he said.
Ensuring that the curriculum, the tests and the teacher evaluation system are all in alignment will be particularly problematic, Mendelson said. Teachers are worried that they could be judged on old tests while they teach a new curriculum, he said.
"We are cautiously optimistic. Aligning with the assessments is monumental job and one with sizable repercussions," he said. "The next few years will be an enormous transition."
For his part, Sadusky said he is confident the state is prepared to make the evaluation changes in the next few years.
This school year, seven school districts will be trying out their own versions of the teacher evaluation system in a select number of schools. In each case, at least 50 percent of a teacher evaluation must based on student test data or some measurement of student learning.