Reform at a snail's pace

Baltimore Sun

The Obama administration has given U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan $5 billion for a "race to the top" fund designed to encourage states to adopt educational innovations that produce major improvements in student achievement. But in the race to take advantage of this federal largesse, Maryland is limping along at a snail's pace compared with the rest of the pack.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick hasn't announced a plan to compete for the federal aid, even though the deadline for the first round of applications is less than two months away. Meanwhile, Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has said education is one of his administration's top priorities, hasn't lifted a finger to remove the roadblocks that put Maryland at a competitive disadvantage in qualifying for funds.

Both insist they're working hard behind the scenes and that Maryland is already well positioned. But when the president spoke recently about states that are leading the way in competing for funds, Maryland didn't make the list. The ones that did are states that are making strong public efforts that rally lawmakers, educators and citizens behind reform.

Maryland did emphasize standardized testing before other states, and it has a clearer ability than some to implement a new statewide curriculum. Unlike some states, it has no cap on the number of charter schools, and there is no law preventing teacher evaluations from being linked to student performance.

But the lack of laws in those two areas, which the White House has deemed crucial, doesn't mean Maryland has a strong charter school law or that we actually do evaluate teachers based on how much progress their students make. There are few charter schools outside Baltimore City, and local school districts in the counties, which have the authority to reject charters, too often do so for no reason other than to avoid the competition charters are supposed to provide in the first place. And student performance-based teacher evaluation is just one of the areas in which any Maryland reform efforts face stiff resistance from the teachers unions.

The state is also likely to have a hard time implementing any widespread merit pay for teachers or enacting any further reforms to the outmoded tenure rules that allow most teachers to get lifetime appointments after only two years in the classroom. Maryland lags far behind other states in its data management systems, which don't allow educators to track students' progress from year to year. Maryland has ambitious plans for its data system and has made progress recently, but other states have had their systems in place for years. Our standardized tests, based on minimal levels of competence, don't adequately prepare students for higher education or for jobs in a global, knowledge-based economy, and the state's evaluation procedures make it all but impossible to fire ineffective teachers.

While Maryland dawdles, other states considered leading contenders in the race - California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Tennessee and Louisiana, for example - have been scrambling to rewrite laws and revise policies likely to be viewed as possible impediments to serious school reform. They have called public meetings, convened task forces and enlisted public figures to rally support behind the need for sweeping changes; in Colorado, the state's lieutenant governor is personally leading the charge. And they've worked hard to get at least a modicum of cooperation and support from the powerful teachers' unions.

Ms. Grasmick says Maryland already meets all the requirements for receiving federal innovation funds. She seems to be pinning her hopes on getting a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that would allow her to hire a high-powered consultant to write a winning application. But with millions of dollars at stake, surely she and the governor could mobilize funds from the state's own budget to underwrite the drafting of such an important initiative. Colorado has funded its effort to the tune of $7 million, but Maryland officials say they can't even come up with the $200,000 they would need to hire someone to write the grant proposal unless they get private sector help.

The larger problem is that neither Ms. Grasmick nor Governor O'Malley seems to understand that none of the groundwork is in place for a successful proposal, no matter who ends up writing it. Support of the teachers unions on issues such as tenure, teacher evaluations and merit pay is crucial to any innovation strategy that has a chance of being competitive. Ms. Grasmick and the O'Malley administration say they're engaged in serious talks with the unions, but without any effort by the governor to rally public support behind the reforms, it's hard to imagine what leverage he has, especially in an election year when he's likely loath to anger a potent supporter. Neither the governor nor any General Assembly leader has announced plans to introduce legislation to revise rules on tenure, charter schools or tying teacher evaluations to student performance, despite the fact that the eventual winners in the race for federal funds are likely to be states that score highest in just those areas.

Maryland has no shortage of educators committed to innovation and reform, including Baltimore City schools chief Andrés Alonso, who has made great progress replacing failing schools with new public and charter schools. But the state needs to pull its share of the weight if Maryland is to have a realistic shot at winning innovation funds. We're appalled by Ms. Grasmick and Governor O'Malley's seemingly cocky attitude about the prospect of succeeding in the race for the top without showing the kind of public commitment other states have. No one wants to see Maryland end up a day late and a dollar short in this competition just because officials couldn't get their act together to write a proposal the feds will take seriously.

Readers respond The Sun's editorial should have been titled, "The race to the top, viewed from the top." Everyone agrees that we need to do more to fix low-performing schools, close achievement gaps affecting low-income and minority children and improve graduation rates and college readiness for all students. But the reason Maryland was ranked #1 in several rankings this year is because our state and its taxpayers have invested heavily in our public schools, and our elected officials and school officials have collaborated with teachers and staff to identify what works and replicate successful reforms statewide.

Yes, we need all the additional dollars we can get to continue our progress. But let's not confuse innovation for innovation's sake with reforms that will truly make a difference for Maryland students.

Daniel Kaufman

Improving school principals gets the most points under the final Race to the Top grant guidelines, and this is another area of considerable weakness for Maryland's application.

Several national groups just gave Maryland an F for not letting principals remove ineffective teachers. Principals in Maryland who work in challenging schools get no more support or rewards than any other principals. They stay for a year and then leave for less difficult schools.

As a candidate, the governor championed stronger principals, including signing bonuses for those who agree to turn around failing schools. Three years later: no action. To win the federal grants and move school reform forward, strengthening instructional leadership should be a top priority.

Matthew Joseph, Baltimore

The writer is executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth.

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