Race to the Top: a game Md. should get in, win or lose

Baltimore Sun

There's a big race shaping up in local education - and I'm not taking about my contest with Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso to see who can grow the longest mustache to raise money for city schools.

No, it's U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's "Race to the Top," a competitive federal grant program which will distribute $4.35 billion to states solely for education reform. States that want to be in the running for as much as $250 million each will submit their applications in January.

There's been a lot of chatter lately about whether Maryland can win. It may be too late to compete in the first round, but as executive director of Teach For America-Baltimore, I hope Maryland will submit a winning grant application in the next round. I started my career teaching in Baltimore classrooms and would like nothing else than to see us win.

But as I used to tell my fourth-graders at Yorkwood Elementary, sometimes it's not about who wins or loses; it's how you play the game. Whether or not we win a grant in Race to the Top, we have the opportunity to commit to innovative education strategies that will move us to the top of the class for generations to come.

First, let's keep doing what we do well. The national journal Education Week ranked Maryland's school system first in the nation in its annual "Quality Counts" review this year. We beat out well-regarded states like Massachusetts, New York and Virginia for this honor because of our policies around strong student performance and support for excellence.

Maryland has also beefed up educational resources in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), areas critical to success in global economy and very important in Race to the Top. Gov. Martin O'Malley's STEM task force recently issued a detailed report, a key step to implementing lasting reform in these key areas.

Now let's look at areas where we can improve. In two categories central to success in Race to the Top - systems for attracting great teachers and tracking student performance - we fall a bit short.

In the first category, we don't have a good system for certifying teachers from nontraditional backgrounds. This means a lot of talented people who want to teach never enter the classroom. In fact, three-quarters of Teach for America applicants who pick Baltimore for their assignments are disqualified from teaching in the city because of these certification requirements.

High standards and rigorous certification are essential to ensure all children can have great teachers. But we should also give serious consideration to those with strong potential to be great teachers.

For example, in 2009, one of the 35,000 Teach For America applicants was a Yale University environmental engineering major with a 3.5 GPA and substantial math-related coursework. Although she had four credits each in physics, math and statistics and 44 in engineering, she was seven credits short of the math credits Maryland requires. Her first choice was to teach math in Baltimore, but she's now teaching in a different state. Stories like these are a loss across Maryland, but for areas desperately in need of energetic and effective teachers like Baltimore and Prince George's County, the impact is more profound.

Then there's Maryland's inadequate system for meaningfully tracking student achievement data. Teachers can't track student progress throughout the year, and student performance is not included as part of the teacher evaluation process. This makes it all but impossible for us to identify our most effective teachers and our best teacher preparation programs and to help all teachers to become more effective.

Race to the Top is going to be a tight contest. But whether we win or lose, we owe it to our schools and kids to get in the game.

Omari Todd is executive director of Teach For America-Baltimore. His e-mail is oma ri.todd@teachforamerica.org.

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