Md. Panel Urges Merit Pay, Other Policy Changes

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Maryland’s latest bid to improve its schools includes proposals to adopt a statewide pay-for-performance system for teachers, enact a stronger charter school law, and begin a program of school ratings.

But some education experts are unimpressed with the recommendations made by the Governor’s Commission on Quality Education in Maryland, saying that many of the high-profile panel’s proposals are in progress or have been suggested before.

The 30-member commission, which was assembled by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, was charged with examining four areas: teacher and principal accountability and growth; links between schools and the community; best practices in education; and school readiness.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele led the commission, which held its first meetings in September of last year. In preparing the 54-page report, Mr. Steele visited 38 schools, and the panel gathered advice from more than 1,000 students and about 600 teachers in Maryland. The panel also held several public hearings.

Long-Term Planning

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Commission on Quality Education issued recommendations this month. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele chaired the panel, whose ideas have received a mixed reaction from teachers and lawmakers.

• Devise a teacher-compensation system that would pay teachers according to their levels of expertise, their effectiveness, and the staffing needs of their schools.
• Rate schools based on their academic performance.
• Expand the alternative-path certification process for principals and teachers to increase the pool of highly qualified prospective school employees.
• Revamp the state's charter school law to give more instructional flexibility to public charter schools.
• Give principals more authority over school budgets, personnel, and facilities management.
• Create a new pension system that would let teachers keep their pension plans if they move to other states or switch careers.

According to the report, which was released this month, the commission’s goal is to use the effort to “re-energize the discussion of new ideas, to be followed by focused action to improve education in Maryland.”

“Gov. Ehrlich and I are committed to bringing quality education to every child in Maryland,” Lt. Gov. Steele said in a news release. “This report provides the next steps in our education system to make this commitment a reality.”

How Much Input?

Robert J. Kemmery, the commission’s executive director, said he was working to draft specific policy proposals based on the report’s 30 recommendations. The state board of education, the governor, or the state higher education commission could carry out some proposals, he said, while others would need legislative approval.

“It will take political will to move on some of these things,” Mr. Kemmery said.

But state Delegate Nancy J. King, a Democrat who was on the commission, said that all of the panel’s recommendations deserve a public vetting of some sort and that none should simply be regulatory changes.

Ms. King, a member of the legislature’s lower house, pointed out that commission members were barred from speaking to the news media.

And, she added, the commission was divided into four subcommittees, which under the state’s open-meetings law allowed those sessions to be held in private.

“It bothered me that there was not any opportunity for the public to see what we were talking about,” Ms. King said.

Mr. Kemmery countered that holding the subcommittee meetings in private provided a “fair, frank, and honest discussion to look at all of these topics.”

He said all subcommittee work was reported back during the full commission meetings, which were open to the public. Lt. Gov. Steele also wanted to be the only person to speak to the media until the panel finished its work, Mr. Kemmery added.

Pat Foerster, the president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, criticized the commission for tackling what she sees as minute policy matters. She called its report “a collection of ideas that we’ve heard many other times in other places.”

Ms. Foerster, who represents the 62,000 teachers who are members of the state’s National Education Association affiliate, blasted the commission’s proposal to adopt a statewide compensation system that would base teachers’ pay on their expertise, effectiveness, and the challenges of staffing their schools. She said the plan skirts the main issue: Maryland teachers are poorly paid.

Ms. Foerster added that a recommendation to revamp the pension system to allow teachers and principals to keep their retirement plans if they change careers or move out of state is illogical because it encourages educators to leave Maryland and the teaching profession.

Instead, she said, state lawmakers should bolster the state’s benefit packages for teachers, which, according to union evaluations, is the worst in the nation.

Others challenged the commission’s proposal to permit nonprofit organizations, colleges, and other entities to oversee charter schools. John Woolums, the director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said his group would continue to advocate that local school boards retain sole chartering authority.

“If charter schools continue to be public schools and not private schools by another name, we strongly oppose any other independent authority to establish those schools,” he said.

The report also suggests that the state adopt a school rating system, much like those in Florida and Texas, as a way to distinguish between high- and low-performing schools, and to set the highest possible goals for individual schools.

Mr. Woolums took issue with the recommendation, saying that school comparisons are difficult to implement fairly, especially when a small group of students can skew a school’s test results.

Conversely, Mr. Woolums said, the commission’s proposal for a value-added measurement model that tracks student progress on tests from year to year would be useful.

Vol. 25, Issue 05, Pages 20, 23

Published in Print: September 28, 2005, as Md. Panel Urges Merit Pay, Other Policy Changes
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