School board votes to stick with Race to the Top

The Howard County Board of Education narrowly defeated a motion Tuesday, Dec. 18, to withdraw from the federal Race to the Top program that the system signed on to in 2010.

By a vote of 4-3, members defeated a motion made by Vice Chairman Brian Meshkin to withdraw from the program, which includes controversial teacher evaluation standards that go into effect next fall.

Meshkin, along with board members Cindy Vaillancourt and Ann De Lacy, voted to withdraw from the program. Chairman Frank Aquino, along with Sandra French, Ellen Giles and Janet Siddiqui, voted to stay.

"We've heard from our teachers, who have explicitly asked us to withdraw," Meshkin said. "It has raised the concerns of the parents and citizens, and teachers are against it. … It's so different from what the board acted on (in 2010). It's a no-brainer."

Meshkin's motion came after a lengthy discussion of the proposed teacher and principal evaluation pilots, in which 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation will be based on students' performance on standardized tests.

"This whole model based on punishing teachers for whatever the perceived ills of the entire education system are ... does not apply to how we want people to do the best work and have a fair evaluation," Vaillancourt said.

The board had approved a pilot in which standardized tests made up only 10 percent of a teacher's evaluation in September, but the Maryland State Department of Education increased that number to 20 percent. When board members asked if the system could remain at 10 percent and raise it if forced, county schools Superintendent Renee Foose said if any district in the state is permitted to evaluate their teachers with less than 20 percent, she would demand the same be extended to Howard County.

"It's the right thing," Foose said. "Our teachers deserve it."

The pilot must be sent to the state for approval by Dec. 26. Juliann Dibble, director of professional and organizational development for the county school system, said minor changes could be made to the pilot before a final state approval in June, but a shift from 10 to 20 percent is not considered a "subtle change."

The ambiguous nature of the program and the ever-changing requirements it entails is one reason the system should have no part of it, opposing board members said.

"I cannot say to you any more emphatically: I am so opposed to this latest fad of teaching to the test," De Lacy said. "It was a bait-and-switch. ... This has not been to the benefit of us and our community."

The vote came after some minor procedural quibbling. Aquino called a dinner recess after the report on the pilot. However, board members never left, and instead began discussing the possibility of postponing the board's work session on board governance policy, set to occur in the evening session, and fit in a report from Community Advisory Council Chairman Ted Mallo.

The session was reconvened, and Mallo said that at a recent meeting, CAC members were concerned over the proposed teacher evaluation system. Mallo said CAC "wants a system that helps us identify struggling teachers so that they can receive the additional supports needed to be successful," and CAC is not convinced the proposal moves the system in that direction.

That, Meshkin said, was the "straw that broke the camel's back," and prompted him to make his motion to withdraw from Race to the Top.

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