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Are Maryland's New Teacher-Evaluation Deals a Hoax?

Maryland may have announced new teacher evaluation deals with districts on June 13, but the key parties involved can't even agree on what they mean.

On June 13, the Maryland State Department of Education announced that it had reached agreements regarding teacher evaluations with 21 of the 22 county school districts in the state that needed to submit acceptable deals by June 7 (just a few signatures were needed to approve the pending deal in Baltimore city). But that word "agreements" could end up meaning very little to nothing at all, especially after the 2013-14 school year.

At the start of this week, I wrote about how up to seven districts in Maryland were prepared to dig in their heels to protect their deals with teachers that deviated from what the state department wanted. The squabbling is over the 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation that must be based on state assessments. After consulting with the U.S. department, Maryland offered to allow districts to phase in that requirement over three years, allowing them to mix in a School Progress Index (which measures non-classroom-specific testing data) along with the classroom-specific test results until the full phase-in.

But the state teachers' union, possibly in conjunction with a few districts and local teachers' unions, said it was willing to seek a court injunction to protect their deals, which didn't involve any phase-in plan, and to stop the state from imposing its model evaluation system on like-minded districts. The districts in question wanted a 10-10 split between state assessment scores and the progress index for the 2013-14 year, but no guarantees beyond that. The union and a few districts also wanted the evaluations next year to be "no fault" for teachers, something the state wouldn't agree to.

So if the state said June 13 that deals have been reached, what's the problem? Essentially, both sides claim that they haven't buckled or altered their positions.

Maryland Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery told me that four of the 22 districts in question have agreed to a three-year phase-in of the 20-percent requirement in evaluations for state test scores, and that there is an understanding that by 2015-16, all school districts in the state will have the 20-percent requirement. (By then it will be based on the assessments tied to the Common Core State Standards.)

Lowery reiterated that this was the plan agreed to by all sides, and that she had done no "negotiating" with any of the districts in question about their demands. She also expressed confidence that at the end of next year, when teachers see the results of their evaluations, they will say of the evaluations, "This is a pretty good check and balance."

"We have a transition plan," she told me.

But you won't get MSEA President Betty Weller to agree to that. She claimed in a subsequent interview that if Lowery believes they have an agreement on a three-year transition to the evaluations with a 20-percent state test score requirement, she's completely wrong.

"If she wants to think we have a three-year deal, that's on her...We believe we have a one-year deal," Weller said.

What does that mean? Essentially, Weller says that the districts and local collective bargaining units that agreed to a split between state test scores and a progress index (or other measures) believe their deal only covers the 2013-14 school year. After that, nothing is certain, Weller argued, and they're not bound to follow the course that Lowery outlined. She said that for the next year, the state union and other parties won't seek the court injunction they were previously threatening to investigate. But for 2014-15 and beyond, all bets are off.

Now, Lowery did say that if, after next year, some districts feel the need to seek an amendment to their evaluation deals, the state will discuss that with them. But she emphatically denied that this was a concession on her part in terms of how teacher evaluations will change in the next three years. (Despite the state union's demands, the evaluations in 2013-14 will remain "high stakes" for teachers, as the state department has desired.)

In 2014, by the way, the state's waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act expires, as does the state's deal with the feds with its grant from the Race to the Top program. The evolution of teacher evaluations in Maryland since 2010 has hinged on those two agreements. Since both will be nearing their end, Weller said that next year will be the time when the state will have sit down with unions and districts to re-evaluate their evaluation systems, so to speak.

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