Education reform coming to the suburbs

As the school year finally gets under way, public school students across the state will be writing more often and learning to think differently in math class, as the state begins major education reforms that will change everything from the curriculum to the way teachers are evaluated.

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.

Baltimore City has tried a number of the most radical reforms as it attempted to turn around its perpetually poor-performing schools. Now suburban school systems that attract affluent parents seeking good schools for their children will be adopting some of those same approaches — new, national standards, a new test in core subjects, and the use of student testing data to assess teacher performance.

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.

At the end of the year, the districts will report how their pilots went, and next school year all 24 districts will pilot a local version of the evaluation system that has been negotiated between the unions and the administration. By 2014-2015, the evaluation system will be formally adopted.

The discussion so far as been difficult. A state panel that was supposed to come up with a framework for the evaluation system, was stymied with teachers on one side and officials from the state and local school districts on the other side.

Weeldreyer believes some of the discussions are happening too late, and she said some teachers haven't accepted the premise that the new evaluation system should be based on student performance.

Another obstacle, she said, is that some believe radical changes aren't needed. Maryland's schools have been ranked first for three years in a row by Education Week. "There is a huge complacency issue of why should we have to do any of this because we are fine," Weeldreyer said.

Some of the disparities in performance between minority and non-minority children and middle-class and poor children have been masked in suburban districts where overall test results on state tests are high.

And suburban parents are more suspicious of testing than parents in Baltimore City, where low test scores have meant the district was able to win more funding aimed at improving schools. Suburban parents believe that the tests prompt teachers to dumb down the curriculum.

"They are worried whether the state tests are as good as Advanced Placement," said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a D.C based education non-profit that managed the writing of the Common Core Standards. "The external pressure for these kind of reforms doesn't exist in the wealthier suburban districts. People are more satisfied."

The city, meanwhile, has shown a greater willingness to embrace change. Just as Maryland was one of the states to win the Race to the Top competition a year ago, Baltimore was already adopting a new teacher contract that is considered one of the most progressive in the nation because it rewards teachers for their teaching ability rather than simply their education level and tenure.

"We are seeing reforms that have been pioneered in urban districts slowly spreading to their suburban counterparts," Cohen said.

Cohen said some suburban parents will be happy with the new standards, which revamp the teaching of math by teaching fewer ideas but in greater depth. Algebra I will be a more rigorous version than what has been taught. In addition, the standards give greater emphasis to writing, including many different types of writing, and to research papers.

While some administrators say the new curriculum contains much of what they are already doing, Cohen said they will see how different the new approaches are when the new tests come out.

"They will tap into different skills and expertise," he said.

And despite some skepticism in the suburbs, Maxwell in Anne Arundel said it's unlikely the state would back down from its commitment to these reforms because no one wants to give $250 million back to the federal government.

Maxwell said the teachers and the school administration in Anne Arundel will find common ground to work out the new teacher evaluation system. Most teachers and schools, he said, are adept at analyzing student data already. "They feel accountable for that work whether it is part of their evaluation or not," he said.