State is not backing away from teacher evaluation rule

Gov. Martin O'Malley has indicated that he will stand firm on the state's commitment to require student achievement to be 50 percent of principal and teacher evaluations despite significant opposition from teachers unions.

After meetings last week with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, an O'Malley spokesman said the state will have to fulfill the promise it made to the agency about the evaluations in order to receive $250 million in Race to the Top funding it won in a national grant competition last summer.

The Maryland State Board of Education had backed up the promise by proposing a regulation that would have made the 50 percent requirement a rule, but a legislative review panel voted it down in November, bouncing the issue to the governor.

"We remain committed to an aggressive education reform package consistent with the state's Race to the Top application," O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said in an e-mail. But he added that the governor also remains committed to working with teachers and administrators to "determine a strategy to move forward that achieves this goal without putting this important grant at risk."

Legislators, the state teachers union and state school officials could still negotiate some compromise, but whether discussions have been taking place behind closed doors was unclear.

A union official said last week that they had made the governor's staff aware of their concerns.

The fact that the governor has weighed in on the issue could help the work of the Council on Educator Effectiveness, which O'Malley appointed to write rules on how school systems should evaluate teachers and principals.

Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools, said recently that the panel has asked the governor for a six-month extension because of the complexities, including the problem of coming up with a good design for evaluating the 70 percent of teachers in the state who don't teach subjects that are tested.

"The deeper we get into this, the more complicated it gets," said Elizabeth Weller, vice president of the Maryland State Education Association.

But the panel has run into other stumbling blocks. Teachers unions said they believed that an education reform law passed by the legislature last winter only dictated that test scores or student growth over the school year be a "significant" part of the evaluation and that the state board and Grasmick have stretched the interpretation of the law to make it 50 percent.

The unions also take issue with state school officials saying they can determine what test will make up 30 percent of the evaluation while the local school districts determine the other 20 percent.

At a recent state school board meeting, Weller and Grasmick, who co-chair the panel, told the board they disagree over those key points.

"I think there was a fundamental misunderstanding," Grasmick said in an interview about the state providing school systems with the model for 30 percent of the evaluation. She said the state board is clearly on solid ground in interpreting the laws.

Teachers have expressed deep concerns about being judged on student achievement, saying that they believe there are too many factors that are beyond their control, including whether a student regularly attends school, is in special education or has other special circumstances that would determine how well they perform.

But Grasmick said the evaluation system will not be so rigid that a principal could not take into account some of those factors in an evaluation.

School board member Mary Kay Finan noted that principals have not complained about the concept of having half of their evaluation based on student achievement, in part, she believes, because they have grown used to being judged on how well their students perform since state tests were introduced.

Weller said teachers are not opposed to having some student achievement calculated as part of their evaluation, but they are concerned that 50 percent is too much. In addition, teachers have said they want more of the model left to the discretion of local school systems.

Grasmick said she expects that a pilot of the evaluation system will be ready to try in seven districts by next school year.

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