Senators grill educators on Common Core

A panel of state lawmakers grilled Maryland's top school officials Thursday over whether education reforms are being executed too quickly and putting undue stress on teachers.

Senators on the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee told state schools Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery that they have been bombarded by concerns from teachers and parents.

Many, they said, complained about how the state is simultaneously implementing three big programs: a new testing system, new ways to evaluate teachers and a more rigorous set of education standards known as the Common Core.

"A lot of them have talked about tremendous stress," said Sen. Ronald N. Young, a Frederick County Democrat, adding that some teachers say they're ready to give up and others now take medication for stress.

"Isn't there some way, based on what I'm hearing from teachers, that they can't be given a little more time?" Young asked.

Lowery responded that the state has already sought ways to slow down the reforms, delaying when the new teacher evaluation system tied to student achievement takes effect and when new tests will be used to measure the state's education system.

Lowery said that years ago, several school districts voluntarily started developing the lesson plans that are helping teach the tougher new standards. "It's going really well in some places," she said, adding: "First and foremost, we need time. If we're going to do this right, we need time."

The three big reforms have sparked controversy that ranges from conservatives accusing the state of taking over education to progressives complaining about testing children too much. Baltimore County teachers filed a grievance this week about the extra hours they have to work because lesson plans based on the Common Core have not been available until just weeks before they are to be taught.

Republican candidates for governor have vowed, if elected, to reverse the state's choice to join the 44 other states and the District of Columbia that signed on to the Common Core.

"This is one of the worst program implementations I have ever seen, in terms of educating parents and families," Sen. Ed Reilly, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said to Lowery and other top state education officials. "Public relations is part of your job — all of your jobs — and it's been done very poorly."

Other senators warned that missteps and disruptions could jeopardize Maryland's coveted ranking by Education Week as having the best schools in the nation.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore City Democrat and former teacher, compared the educational reforms to the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act and health exchanges. "If we don't do this right," he said, the state may have "a bad image on a great concept."

State officials said they have requested waivers from federal education officials in order to slow down the pace of the changes, and they too have heard the frustrations of educators.

Jack R. Smith, chief academic officer with the state's Department of Education, told lawmakers that his wife is a middle school math teacher, and he understands how new performance measures cause angst.

Smith said the state has to find the right balance between doing what's best for boosting student achievement and for teachers.

"If the anxiety level is so high that they become demoralized, that won't serve the state," Smith said. "It can't be all about how the adults feel, but we can't ignore the adults."

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