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Better evaluations means better schools

There's excitement in the air for students, parents and educators as schools across Maryland open their doors for a new school year. Students enter new classrooms, parents learn about new expectations for their children, and educators begin another year with a renewed focus on continued academic improvement.

There is an extra layer of excitement this year as new teacher and principal evaluation systems are piloted in each of the state's 24 school systems. The purpose of these systems is to strengthen the knowledge, skills and classroom practices of educators to improve the achievement of our students. That's exciting for teachers, because the system focuses on identifying targeted professional development to help educators refine their skills and improve their practice. And it's exciting for parents and their students, who will benefit from improved conditions for teaching and learning.

While the start of the school year is always special, it's also a time when we see how much important work lies ahead of us. That is particularly true during this pilot year.

The framework for these piloted evaluation systems has been set by meaningful collaboration among Maryland's teachers, administrators, higher education officials and policymakers through their continuing work on the Council for Educator Effectiveness. This collaboration has continued on the local level. School systems have been encouraged to figure out what works best for their students by refining their own evaluation systems, building off of the Council's work.

All 24 school systems have been engaged with their teachers and principals, making progress in their collaborative work to develop strong systems. Twenty-one local systems are field testing local evaluation models, while three systems are testing a state model developed by the Council. While there are important local differences, every system is placing a critical emphasis on improving student performance as part of the evaluation system. We expect to learn a great deal from this year's field test, just as we did from the initial pilots held last year in Baltimore, Charles, Kent, Prince George's, Queen Anne's and St. Mary's Counties, and Baltimore City. Those pilots reinforced our belief that we need strong, multiple measures for gauging educator effectiveness, and that our professional development system must be individualized for the varying needs of Maryland teachers and principals.

These new evaluation systems have the potential to improve teaching and learning in all of Maryland's schools. To realize this potential, we must take what we learn from this year's field test and discuss different approaches to student and professional growth. We'll need to learn what works best for educators and students and encourage the best teaching and learning conditions as we prepare for the 2013-14 school year.

Teaching is extremely complex, and measuring teaching is even more complex. Maryland is among a number of states currently engaged in this work. We will need to work together — at the state level, the district level, and the school level — to make sure that these systems are aimed at continually improving skills that will lead to improvements for students. We're not building a system that uses a single test score to measure (or fire) teachers and principals, but a system that builds teacher and principal expertise and student success.

We also know that we'll need to keep tweaking and improving these systems far beyond this year. In the coming years, Maryland will implement a new state curriculum — the Common Core — and new assessments. We must make sure that our evaluation systems and measurements work smoothly with these new pieces of the puzzle.

These new evaluation systems can help move Maryland's already outstanding, No. 1-ranked public school system to the next level: a truly world-class school system. We won't get there without a great deal of hard work. And we won't get there without the collaboration, flexibility, ingenuity and innovation that we encourage in all of Maryland's classrooms and students.

Lillian Lowery is Maryland's state superintendent of schools. Betty Weller is president of the Maryland State Education Association.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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