HCEA requests withdrawal from Race to the Top

The Howard County Education Association last week formally requested the Board of Education withdraw from Race to the Top, a controversial federal program tied to teacher evaluations based on student performance on state assessments — evaluations that are now law.

"Students' standardized test scores should not be used in teacher evaluations at all," HCEA president Paul Lemle said to the board at its Oct. 18 meeting, noting that assessments do not provide a clear picture of student growth. "(Assessments are) a low-resolution snap-shot you printed out with your ink cartridge low and spilled your coffee on. At best they tell you how a student does with multiple choice. ... It is not an objective measure of student learning, and even if it was, it is not an objective measure of employee performance."

The memorandum of understanding the board signed with the government in 2010 does include a termination clause, Lemle said, and it is within the board's authority to withdraw from the program.

But HCEA's request came without a vote from the board, because as part of the Maryland Education Reform Act of 2010, student growth as part of teacher evaluations is the law.

"It's not a matter of signing on (to Race to the Top) anymore," said Board Chairwoman Sandra French. "It's state law."

French pointed to Frederick and Montgomery counties, districts that did not sign on to Race to the Top, but that must follow the guidelines without the grant money award to early signers like Howard County. In 2010, Howard County was awarded $823,257 over four years through the program, to be used toward increasing student achievement and creating more rigorous assessments.

Starting next year, the state is mandating that student growth make up a significant part of a teacher's evaluation. HCEA had worked with central office staff on a pilot for teacher evaluation that included 10 percent based on student performance assessments like the Maryland State Assessment or the impending Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests.

Lemle said HCEA was still in support of the pilot, but drew a distinction between the pilot and the parameters set up to create it from the Maryland State Department of Education, which is now insisting the assessments be weighed as 20 percent or higher of a teacher's evaluation — at least double the original amount.

"This is a dealbreaker for us, and an action that demands a response," Lemle said. "It cannot be ignored, lest any other policy be open for reconsideration at the whim of the department."

As of Oct. 19, 1,100 employees — teachers, paraeducators, union members and non-members — had signed a petition asking for the withdrawal, Lemle said, and he expected that number to grow.

Frederick and Montgomery counties, French said, still have to abide by the state-mandated guidelines, that 20 percent of an evaluation is based on student performance on assessments. That's double the 10 percent Howard County — along with other districts across the state — is piloting this year.

Superintendent Renee Foose said that State Superintendent Lillian Lowery has made it clear every school system will be looking at assessment scores making up 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation.

Because of that added pressure on teachers, Foose said a focus group had be convened to look at adapting Montgomery County's lauded peer-assisted review process for Howard County, in which struggling teachers are provided support systems from their co-workers and supervisors.

"It's unfortunate, but that's the reality," Foose said. "Our challenge is looking at how we can make this not impactful for the teachers, what can we do to support our teachers and staff in the schools. ... We're not throwing teachers under the bus because of one assessment and one evaluation. That will never happen."

Meanwhile, applications for more Race to the Top grant money are due at the end of October. The schools' Department of Student Family and Community Services Advisory Committee is scheduled to host an overview of the grant, presented Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 7 p.m. at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia.

This round of grants is to help schools personalize instruction with technology, provide more professional development for staff through online learning options and to make instruction more relevant to students' lives after high school.

At last week's board meeting, Lemle maintained that Race to the Top has no place in Howard County.

"We don't need a Race to the Top," he said. "This is the top."

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