Having passed an ambitious education reform law, Maryland is now wrestling with complex questions about how student test scores will be used to evaluate teachers.
No state is yet judging teachers based on student achievement — although a handful are trying — so there is no proven path to follow and there are many skeptics among teachers unions.
One of the most vexing issues is how the districts will evaluate teachers whose students don't take state tests such as those in music, physical education or first grade. Most teachers in the state don't teach a subject that is tested, but Maryland is committed to having student achievement count for 50 percent of an evaluation.
In addition, the state must determine how much progress students would be expected to make in a school year for a teacher to be graded effective or ineffective.
"This is something that states and school districts around the country have been grappling with, some more successfully," said Steven Glazerman, a senior fellow at Mathematica, which does education research.
Individual school districts were the first to pioneer the idea. The District of Columbia instituted a new evaluation system last school year, and Denver has given incentives to highly rated teachers for a number of years. Spurred on by the hope of getting federal funds, a number of states, including Tennessee, Delaware, Illinois and Maryland, have recently adopted legislation and regulations to change the evaluations as a way of ridding their systems of the poorest teachers.
The next step for Maryland is the creation of an Educator Effectiveness Council that will decide most of the details for the state's evaluation system. Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to announce the council members in the next two weeks.
Made up primarily of educators, the council will come up with "a framework" by spring, said Maryland state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Then, Grasmick said, the state will ask seven school districts to try out the new evaluations in a limited number of schools while continuing the current system.
The state will go to the new system during the 2012-2013 school year; no action would be taken to remove or reward a teacher until the following year.
"Maryland has a long history of wanting whatever we do to be done well. So we are going to do this very carefully," Grasmick said. "If we need more time, we will take more time."
One expert said that the state should not wait years to put the system in place.
"The real tension is between the moral urgency [of getting quality teachers in all classrooms] and the difficulty of turning the policy in to fair practice. It is a cycle of years, that involves trial runs and midcourse corrections," said Brad Jupp, who represented the teachers union in Denver when it first began implementing an evaluation model that rewarded highly rated teachers some years ago. Jupp, now a senior program adviser in the office of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, believes that evaluations can work to improve teaching.
One of the most important questions may be how to evaluate teachers whose students aren't tested. Several experts said some states and districts are now considering creating tests for every subject and grade. Another option would be use a school's test scores for all the teachers or to create teams of teachers. But some experts question whether a gifted music teacher should be judged on the basis of how well math and reading are taught down the hall.
Kate Walsh, a Maryland state school board member and president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said whatever tests are used should meet a statewide standard but also allow districts to continue teaching their local curriculum. So each district, she said, should be able to decide what it expects students of American government or physics to know by the end of the year.
Grasmick said the council might also consider the option of having teachers graded on a portfolio of their students' work instead of specific test scores.
The bill passed by the General Assembly this past spring requires only that student achievement be a "significant" factor in evaluations. The state board has proposed a regulation that would further define "significant" by saying that student achievement must account for 50 percent of the evaluation, with 30 percent based on the Maryland State Assessments and 20 percent on local tests.
Although the large issues may be resolved on the state level, many details will be left to each school system. The local teachers unions and the leaders of their districts must reach an agreement by a certain date or the law says a statewide system must be used.
Teachers unions in the state have been particularly critical of the move to have 50 percent of the evaluation linked to test scores. What that means, they argue, is that scores will be worth more than any other single factor. "We certainly don't think that test scores should be the sole measure," said Clara Floyd, president of the Maryland State Education Association.
Another serious issue, experts said, is how to free up enough time for principals to carry out the evaluations. Principals spend little time on evaluations that carry no consequences now, but in the future, they will be more time-consuming. "Principals are very, very busy," Walsh said. "Some principals can't imagine how they are going to pull off the evaluations."
Dan Weisberg, vice president of policy at the New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit that trains teachers, also sees this as a serious issue. "You can't just load onto principals a lot more work and say do it. …They need to have time freed up. They need additional training and support," he said.
In Washington, D.C., principals are aided by master teachers, who are hired by the system and travel to different schools to conduct some of the evaluations. That approach protects teachers who may be unpopular with a principal from getting undeserved bad reviews, and it also helps take the workload off the principals.
The attempt to come up with new evaluation policies is part of a national trend that focuses on improving teaching. Education experts now say the quality of a teacher matters more than class size or textbooks and is the quickest way to close the achievement gap. One study that followed third-graders in Dallas showed that students who had three years of highly rated teachers ended up in the 75th percentile on assessments while the students with poor teachers ended up testing in the 25th percentile. Both groups started at the same point.
Weisberg argues that states will be better off putting evaluation systems into place that aren't perfect at first than waiting to implement them. "If you don't tackle this issue and do it now, you are giving up on providing good teachers for poor and minority kids, in addition to all of their peers across the state," he said.