University education programs brace for impact of K-12 reforms

Caitlin Krebs wants to teach in Baltimore City.

Money isn't terribly important to the Westminster native, an early childhood education major at the University of Maryland, College Park. She wants to work where she feels most needed.

But Krebs and other future educators are nervous about the prospects of a new teacher contract in Baltimore and about the national reform movement encapsulated by the Race to the Top for federal funding. They know they're more likely than their predecessors to be judged on the test scores of their students. And the promise of bigger raises is not enough to wipe away their misgivings.

"On paper, it can sound like a really good idea," Krebs says of reform measures like the Baltimore contract, which didn't pass a ratification vote in October but will be reconsidered by city teachers this month in similar form. "But I don't feel that judging teachers' performance solely on assessments is appropriate. It's an easy way out."

Krebs' concerns are shared by many of the university professors and administrators charged with preparing the next wave of teachers.

As teachers prepare to be evaluated on the performance of their students, education programs are readying for an era when they will be judged much more directly on the performance of their graduates.

"These new approaches are going to hold education schools accountable," says Jennifer King Rice, a professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Simply passing out a master's degree isn't going to be enough anymore, and I think that's a good thing."

But she and others caution that progress on accountability can be made only if the method of evaluating teacher performance is sound.

"In an ideal world, it's a good thing," says Peter Murrell, dean of education at Loyola University Maryland. "It could tell us whether schools of education are really doing what they need to in putting the focus on teachers' impact. But it could have a negative effect if all we're doing is going to a box score on teachers instead of creating an authentic measure of their impact."

If union and school system leaders have their way, the new city contract would tie teacher pay to student performance rather than seniority, a radical step toward the data-driven accountability so many education reformers call essential. Though the contract would only institute the pay-for-performance approach in Baltimore, the state has been developing a plan under which 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation will be tied to student achievement. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has said the city contract could represent a model for all of Maryland.

Just as important to university education programs, the contract would eliminate automatic pay bumps for teachers who pursue master's and doctoral degrees. Such teachers have long represented an important revenue stream for schools of education, and university leaders are greeting the potential change with some trepidation.

"It may take away a basic incentive for teachers to get master's degrees," says Donna Wiseman, dean of the School of Education at College Park. "But it might also help us move our programs in the directions that schools need us to improve."

Other university leaders echoed Wiseman about the upside of eliminating automatic raises for graduate degrees.

Ray Lorion, dean of Towson University's College of Education, says universities must respond by sharpening their programs to produce more high-performing teachers. Programs that give school systems the kind of teachers they're looking for will continue to attract master's and doctoral candidates, he argues.

"In many respects, I think this will make us better at what we do," says Lorion, whose college produces more teachers — about 600 a year — than any other in the state. "I think what we're going to have to do is work with the systems so we can document the impact on quality of our graduate programs."

Though many share excitement about a new era in which classroom performance could be king, they're concerned that methods of evaluating teachers will be too narrowly focused on imperfect tests.

"Like everything, God is in the details," Murrell says. "This is a great opportunity, but we have to be very mindful and careful about how we do the assessment. We don't have a very good track record on that front."

Students in education programs share that anxiety. They worry that they'll be forced to spend more time than ever preparing students for standardized tests.

"One of the things people are very skeptical about is this move to treat education more like a business model," says Helene Rosendorf, an early childhood education major at College Park. "I'm not sure there will ever be a way to identify high-quality teachers through assessment scores. That's just one snapshot of performance."

"I talked with an honors class about this last week," Wiseman says, "and they are excited, but like a lot of educators, they're a little nervous about being evaluated on student achievement. It can't just be based on one test result. They really want context to be taken into account."

The answer for Baltimore and most other systems is likely to be a "value-added" approach that measures the progress of a teacher's students rather than, for instance, penalizing the teacher if a certain percentage of students don't pass a state assessment. But even value-added systems can be convoluted and overly reliant on single tests, say education professors.

"I think that's the biggest concern now," says Rice. "That we come up with fair, relatively objective forms of evaluation. The teachers and school leaders in my classes are leery about it. My response is that accountability is great in theory. But in reality, we don't have the infrastructure in place to monitor the performance of teachers. I've yet to see an accountability system where they've gotten it right."

In response to such concerns, Rice and others agree, education schools must help local and state systems come up with the best ways to evaluate teachers. UM professors, for example, are working with Prince George's County on methods for evaluating teachers and are also part of a pilot program with Towson and Morgan State that is working on a national model for assessing teachers.

Pay-for-performance contracts will also force universities to teach prospective teachers more about assessment, professors agree. In a world where everything they do will be measured, teachers will have to understand how the evaluation system works.

"I do think we'll have to make future teachers aware of how important it will be to be able to talk about student achievement," says Wiseman. "They need to understand assessment and how to make data-driven decisions. We try to teach that way anyway."

At College Park, students say they're already spending significant time talking about Race to the Top and other possible reforms.

At Towson, where the majority of aspiring teachers land jobs in Baltimore City or Baltimore County, Lorion said his college would hold explanatory sessions about the new Baltimore contract and other reform measures.

Students also worry that merit pay systems will force them into competition with fellow teachers who should be collaborators, not rivals. The current contract agreement in Baltimore would allow one teacher per school to make a six-figure salary.

"It's a very slippery slope," says Noah Drill, an elementary education major at College Park. "I don't like the idea of teachers being pitted against each other."

Krebs says she is discouraged by the design of the Baltimore contract but won't be deterred from seeking a job with the city.

"If you have a good rapport with the staff in your school and a good relationship with your students, I think that's where the best learning happens anyway," she says. "Hopefully, I'll do well because I understand the most important thing is to keep the focus on the students."

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