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Nearly $40 Million in Race to Top Funds for Maryland in Jeopardy

Add Maryland to the list of Race to the Top states that have gotten into trouble with the U.S. Department of Education.

The sternly worded letter from the Education Department to Maryland from Dec. 6 is the equivalent of sending an honor roll student to the principal's office, as federal officials have placed several major conditions on $37.9 million of the state's $250 million Race to the Top grant.

If the state doesn't make good on those conditions, it risks losing that part of its grant.

Maryland, which is always among the top states in terms of education policy and student achievement, is like most other Race to the Top states and struggling to implement its teacher- and principal-evaluation system exactly as it promised to do in its winning application.

"The Department is concerned about the overall strategic planning, implementation, and evaluation of the state's teacher and principal evaluation system, including the quality of the [school year] 2011-2012 seven-LEA pilot as well as communication with and supports provided to participating LEAs," the Dec. 6 letter states.

The letter, which does ultimately approve several changes to Maryland's Race to the Top plan, indicates that federal officials have major concerns about two things: the capacity of school districts to implement these evaluations, and the shift away from using test data as one component of educator evaluations at the high school level.

Letters like these are meant to send a warning signal both to state officials, and to the public. But Maryland isn't in nearly the hot water that Hawaii and Georgia are in. Both of those states have had part of (Georgia) or all of (Hawaii) their Race to the Top grant placed on "high-risk status" because of teacher-evaluation woes. That's an official step that can lead to losing grant money.

Nonetheless, "we are concerned about Maryland's rollout of its teacher-evaluation system," said Ann Whalen, who oversees Race to the Top implementation, in an interview. "They are making a relatively significant shift in their approach. As they put these changes into action, we will look to them to be thoughtful about how they execute their work."

In order to stay in the federal department's good graces, Maryland had to turn in by Jan. 7 a plan for how it is field testing and evaluating its teacher-evaluation pilot.

And Maryland met that deadline, said state Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery, the former Delaware chief who inherited Maryland's plan when she became its chief in July 2012. (Lowery replaced longtime chief Nancy Grasmick.)

By the time Lowery got her Race to the Top team in Maryland assembled in October, the state was 6 to 10 months behind schedule. "We had to take a plan that was conceptual and put it in high gear to get it on track," she said in an interview.

She willingly acknowledged that the federal department's concerns are valid, noting that when she arrived last summer—more than two years into the Race to the Top implementation—there wasn't even an approved teacher-evaluation plan. Now, the state is working quickly to field test its teacher evaluation plan, and get outside experts on board to help evaluate how it's working.

It's important to note what the federal department is allowing Maryland to do under a change in its Race to the Top plan: use primarily "student learning objectives," and not state tests, for the student growth portion of evaluations of teachers and principals at the high school level. (This is consistent with the state's approved No Child Left Behind Act waiver plan, too.) SLOs are goals for student learning that are informed by data, but are agreed on by both the teacher and the principal.

The federal department has approved this, but with two stipulations: that at least one SLO include a data point from high school tests, and that when the state shifts to using common assessments linked to the common standards for 2013-14, those tests be used as a student growth measure.

"Within the Maryland context ... this is a short-term transitional issue," Whalen said.

Lowery sees the federal department's threat of withholding $37.9 million in grant money as a real one. "I don't think it's just playing chicken," she said.

And here, Lowery makes an important observation about Race to the Top, from the federal perspective. "If [they] can get even half the states to the finish line with credible, meaningful work," that's better than having more states cross the finish line that have backed away from their promises, she said.

So with Race to the Top implementation now past the halfway mark, it is probably time to start eyeing the finish line.

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