Teaching Profession

Md. Evaluation Feud Reaches Uneasy Resolution

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 03, 2013 5 min read
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After an inconclusive fight over teacher and principal evaluations, Maryland education officials will try to sort out their differences with district superintendents and union leaders, in light of possible new flexibility from Washington on when those evaluations must begin to affect personnel decisions. But a tough road lies ahead.

The details of new evaluations—specifically the weight state assessments will have in personnel decisions in coming years—have been at the heart of the feud, along with the importance of local control. The next school year is shaping up to be a key one, as both Maryland’s waiver from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act and its Race to the Top grant deal expire, and as final preparations begin for the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the associated assessments.

The June 18 announcement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that 34 states that have received waivers from provisions of the NCLB law, including Maryland, could apply to delay for one year (until the 2016-17 school year) high stakes for teachers’ evaluations may relieve some tension. But the feud in Maryland highlights the tensions that surround policy changes driven by Washington.

“Now we’re starting to see the ascendancy of the old powers, the forces of the establishment, who have been kept at bay for years because of Race to the Top money and Race to the Top promises,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a research and policy consultant group with offices in Washington and elsewhere, referring to unions and others. “What’s happening in Maryland is indicative of this bigger story.”

Deal or No Deal?

The Maryland fight stems from the state’s $250 million grant from the federal Race to the Top program, as well as the state’s Education Reform Act, that was passed in 2010 to pave the way for the grant. That law required half a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student growth on objective measures, including test scores.

In a June 5 letter to the Maryland State Education Association, the 71,000-member state teachers’ union, Maryland schools Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery wrote that federal expectations under Race to the Top clearly included “quantitative measures that incorporate at least 20 percent of state assessments in grades and subjects where these assessments are required.”

In the 2013-14 academic year, those would be the Maryland School Assessments; beginning in 2014-15, measures would be based on the common-core-aligned assessments from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The 2013-14 school year would also be the first year of high stakes for teachers based on evaluations.

But several Maryland school districts and the state union balked, arguing that some local education leaders had agreed to make state assessment scores count for only 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. They argued the state had no right to toss out those agreements, and they also wanted the first high-stakes year for evaluations to be pushed back for one year.

“We want local autonomy. There’s not a one-size fits all [solution],” said MSEA President Betty Weller.

Ms. Lowery subsequently offered to phase in the 20 percent requirement over three years, beginning in 2013-14, but some districts and MSEA continued to resist. They threatened early last month to seek a court injunction to stop the state from imposing a model evaluation on districts it deemed had unsatisfactory evaluation deals.

On June 13, Ms. Lowery announced the state had reached long-term evaluation deals with all 22 of the relevant districts, and that four districts had agreed to the phase-in.

But the MSEA and the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland immediately disputed Ms. Lowery’s announcement that there were long-term deals in place, and that any districts agreed to the phase-in. They said that although a court injunction is off the table for now, the expiration of Race to the Top and NCLB waivers next year means all bets are off after the 2013-14 school year. (Waivers can be renewed, however.)

State education officials are scheduled to meet with union leaders from across the state and local superintendents on July 15 to discuss Secretary Duncan’s latest offer of flexibility and other evaluation issues. William Reinhard, the state education department’s spokesman, said the state is interested in the new federal flexibility offer, and that the state hopes to “get everybody on the same page” soon regarding evaluations.

Carl Roberts, the executive director of the state superintendent’s group, said he expects that districts next year will report data from state assessments in evaluations, but that the results won’t inform high-stakes decisions.

In an analysis of Race to the Top progress in Maryland released last February, the federal Education Department said problems in evaluation field tests had endangered full implementation for 2013-14.

Union Concerns

Anna Laughlin, the president of the 840-member Education Association of St. Mary’s County, who in conjunction with her district’s superintendent, Michael Martirano, had fought Ms. Lowery’s interpretation of evaluation requirements, stated in early June, “I wish we hadn’t signed onto [Race to the Top].” In contrast to the present situation, she said, last year the state department actually held up the evaluation deal the St. Mary’s district made with local teachers as a model.

Ms. Weller, the state teachers’ union president, also indicated some regret about how Race to the Top has played out, stating that most districts had received very little of the $125 million given to local jurisdictions under the grant program in exchange for onerous, and uniform, rules and programs. She also indicated her continued opposition to test scores being used in teacher-employment decisions at all.

In fact, recent dramatic fights over teacher evaluations under Race to the Top in Maryland, as well as in Hawaii and New York, may indicate that reckoning is coming for the program. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who led the state’s Race to the Top push, is also leaving office at the end of 2014.

“Can it outlive the money, the promises, and the politicians who advanced it at the state level?” Mr. Smarick said of Race to the Top.

A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Uneasy Resolution Reached in Md. Evaluation Feud

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