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Maryland's Race to the Top ambivalence

Here's a preview of an editorial we're working on. Let us know what you think. The best comments will appear alongside it in the print edition.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's sharply critical comments about state schools chief Nancy Grasmick in his meeting Friday with The Sun's editorial board underscored the problem Maryland has faced for months in its efforts to reap some of the "Race to the Top" funds being offered by the Obama administration. The governor pretty clearly wants to be recognized by the administration. When other states get funds from this initiative, he doesn't want to be left out. And there's little doubt that a politician who makes frequent reference to Education Week's ranking of Maryland's school system as No. 1 would like another laurel to mention on the campaign trail. But when it comes to embracing the actual purpose of the Race to the Top -- making substantive reforms to the education system -- he's not so eager.

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Governor O'Malley made clear that he does not support the changes to Maryland's teacher tenure law that Ms. Grasmick has proposed, even though extending the time it takes for teachers to achieve that status is clearly one of the major aims of the federal incentive program. It appears doubtful that he will support the other reforms Ms. Grasmick proposed -- including requirements to link teacher evaluations to student performance and moving toward providing incentives to those who teach in underserved subjects such as science and math -- and he continues to insist that Maryland should apply for the funds in the first round, in January, in spite of having made no reforms to improve its chances.

The governor summed up his attitude about the process thus: "We're presented with the unique challenge among the 50 states in Race to the Top, because we are at the top."

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But the point of Race to the Top is not to give money to the state deemed best by Education Week. It is to encourage states to experiment with reforms to an education system that, while successful for some, fails far too many students. It is to remove barriers to the establishment of charter schools, to encourage more people with nontraditional backgrounds to become teachers, to add rigourous data analysis to the educational system, to provide incentives for performance and to generally create a public conversation about what works and what doesn't.

Governor O'Malley is making an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" argument based on the notion that Maryland's educational system is superior. And no doubt it is, in many ways, the envy of our peers. But our status as the top state for passing Advanced Placement tests, for example, doesn't change the fact that some jurisdictions -- notably Prince George's County and Baltimore City -- lag far behind their neighbors. And it doesn't change the fact that best in the nation is still not good enough in the global economy of the 21st Century.

If Maryland actually wants to take the Race to the Top seriously and embrace the reforms championed by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, then it should approve Ms. Grasmick's proposals to reform the educational system and wait to apply until the second round, when our application would be stronger. If we're just interested in validating our self-esteem, it would probably be best not to apply at all.

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