Gov. Martin O'Malley's sharply critical comments about state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick in his meeting Friday with The Sun's editorial board underscored the problem Maryland has faced 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.
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. He said he believed extending the time it takes for a new teacher to achieve tenure from the present two or three years to four or more would just increase the length of time bad teachers are in the classroom. This presumes that districts are routinely getting rid of subpar instructors before they achieve tenure, a notion the governor admitted he has no evidence to support. Anecdotal evidence from education officials suggests quite the contrary.
It appears likewise doubtful that the governor 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."
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 rigorous 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. 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.
It's understandable that Governor O'Malley was taken off guard by Ms. Grasmick's announcement at a recent school board meeting that Maryland would delay its application and that she would pursue these reforms. Until then, she had been insisting that Maryland was in a prime position to compete. But others in the state's educational community had long argued that Maryland was lagging in its reform efforts, and the rejection of the state's application for a Gates Foundation grant to help it apply for the Race to the Top funds evidently caused her to change her mind. It's time for the governor to do the same.
If Maryland actually wants to take the Race to the Top seriously, then it should approve Ms. Grasmick's proposals and other reforms to the educational system and wait to apply until the second round, when our chances would be better. If we're just interested in validating our self-esteem, it would probably be best not to apply at all.
Grasmick is right on the mark again. It's time for the governor and legislature to step up to the plate and address these issues. But that's the rub - Grasmick doesn't need votes from the teacher union, but O'Malley sure does.