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Teacher-Evaluation Troubles Sprout in Maryland; Court Spat Looms

The Maryland State Education Association, the largest state teachers' union in Maryland, plans to seek a court injunction to stop state-approved teacher evaluation systems from being imposed on several county school districts. They plan to argue that the state has usurped what should be the districts' power to decide, along with local teachers' unions, which tests are included in the portions of evaluations tied to student growth.

The association, along with several school districts, say that the Maryland School Assessments (MSA) and the upcoming assessments from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) aligned to the Common Core State Standards carry too much weight in the state-approved teacher-evaluation system. They also say the system itself, slated to be fully online next year, isn't ready for prime time, and that the department has confused districts throughout the development of the evaluation system. At least two school districts, in Charles and St. Mary's counties, have submitted final evaluation plans that don't comport with what the state wants.

"The refusal to include all stakeholders in these conversations is detrimental to the progress we've made," MSEA President Betty Weller wrote to Maryland Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery in a June 5 letter.

The state, however, says it is following the requirements of the U.S. Department of Education with respect to new evaluations. Maryland education department officials also say they have given districts sufficient flexibility to decide how to use state assessments with respect to teacher evaluations, while still ensuring they are following federal and state requirements.

The districts are permitted by the state to create their own evaluation plans, but they have to fit within certain rules, such as requiring half of evaluations to be based on student achievement including test scores. If they don't, or if their plans don't fit those rules, the state will simply provide them with its own model evaluation plan.

The districts' teacher-evaluation plans were originally due to the Maryland department on May 15, but the deadline was extended to June 7. A union spokesman, Adam Mendelson, said it's unclear right now which districts or local bargaining units will join the MSEA's quest for a court injunction, which will specifically seek to halt Lowery's attempt to impose an evaluation system on a district. However, the president of the Education Association of St. Mary's County, Anna Laughlin, said her association at least would join MSEA in seeking an injunction. The state union would also seek a subsequent declaratory judgment from the court stating that Lowery has no power to impose these evaluations, since their proposed evaluations meet the legal requirements.

Offers and Counter-Offers

What's the issue? The fight has its roots in the state's winning Race to the Top grant in 2010, which provided Maryland with $250 million in federal money in exchange for several education policy changes favored by the federal department. As part of its grant, the state promised that under the its new teacher-evaluation system, 50 percent would be based on growth in student achievement, and 50 percent would be based on demonstrated professional practice. After various discussions and negotiations, the state said that 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation would be tied to a state assessment, specifically at the moment the MSA.

For the draft versions of both the state and local evaluation models for teachers (as well as principals), you can click on these slides from the Maryland education department from June 6.

But some districts (school districts in Maryland correspond to its counties and to Baltimore city) didn't buy that that initial 20 percent requirement. The county districts said they should be able to determine what that 20 percent of the evaluation based on state assessments consists of. They argued only 10 percent of an evaluation should consist of individual MSA and PARCC scores, and the remaining 10 percent should be based on the individual school's cumulative test performance, using a School Progress Index. That index, of course, lessens the weight of MSA scores from an individual teacher's classroom. Several districts reached deals based on these numbers with their unions, and they thought this comported with the state 2010 Education Reform Act, which paved the way for Race to the Top.

Then the state offered what it thought was a compromise. In 2013-14, the district's plan to split up the 20 percent between MSA scores and the SPI could be used. And in 2014-15, the first year the PARCC assessments are due to replace the MSA, 15 percent of an evaluation would have to be based on individual classroom assessment scores, and only 5 percent could be based on the School Progress Index. And in 2015-16, the performance index would vanish altogether from this calculation, leaving 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation based on the PARCC assessments.

So if you've followed the merry-go-round of offers so far, a crucial hang-up is the School Progress Index, its weight in teacher evaluations, and whether it will remain a part of them over time.

In a reply to Weller's letter (oddly enough with the same date, June 5), Lowery wrote of the phase-out option, "While not necessarily appropriate for all LEAs, this path may provide a suitable option to mitigate apprehension as the State begins full implementation of the Common Core Standards during School Year 2013-14." She added that in allowing the state to offer the phase-in option for districts, the federal department showed "good faith and flexibility."

The state will impose its own default evaluation system on those districts that don't submit teacher evaluations that fit the state's requirements. A spokesman for the department, William Reinhard, wrote in an email that Lowery's letter spoke for itself and added, "This is where we are headed; this is what we plan to do."

Essentially, the MSEA doesn't want the evaluations to actually impact teacher ratings or personnel decisions, at least in 2013-14. But remember, the evaluations are supposed to be fully implemented in the 2013-14 school year. MSEA Vice President Cheryl Bost said the state union and the districts don't want those evaluations to count, arguing that they're simply not ready for prime time, and that the state's imposition on districts violates the state's Education Reform Act from 2010 (the basis for their request for an injunction in court). Again, the MSEA says the act is being violated because the state won't accept the districts' legal authority to make these decisions for themselves—essentially, the union says Maryland won't take yes for an answer.

Superintendents Raise Concerns

Bost pointed to a report on the progress of piloted teacher evaluations in Maryland from March that was commissioned by the state department. It said there were several ongoing issues regarding the evaluations that the state should address, including the adequacy of districts' data systems, and clarity over which decisions the state will make and which ones will be left to districts.

The report's author, Megan Dolan, who wrote the report for the state education department and is a researcher at George Washington University, said while districts could benefit from an additional pilot year, most districts would likely be ready to fully use the evaluations in 2013-14, which seems to undercut part of MSEA's argument about the readiness of the evaluations. At the same time, Dolan did say the evaluations' impact on student learning in that first year would be questionable.

"We're just not ready for full implementation of common core, full implementation of a teacher-evaluation system, and have that all wrapped up in a neat bow by the time we do evaluations in the spring," Bost said, referring to the 2013-14 school year.

In addition to their demands for more control on teacher evaluations, MSEA says that 2013-14 should not only be a "no fault" year for the evaluations, but that the role of MSAs and School Progress Indexes should be eliminated entirely from evaluations for that year—the entire 50 percent of the evaluations based on student growth would draw on objective measures, such as Student Learning Objectives, agreed upon by districts and local bargaining units. That seems like a very significant, even bold request, given the state's insistence (based on what they call federal requirements) about the role state assessments must play in evaluations.

An assistant superintendent for Charles County schools, Keith Hettel, said June 6 his district would not join MSEA's quest for an injunction, but was resubmitting the plan it agreed to with its county teachers' union that splits the 20 percent growth measure based on state assessments between the MSA and SPI. Essentially, Hettel's district is submitting a plan it knows the state won't like, and then waiting for the state to act. St. Mary's County submitted a plan in which the crucial 10 percent also used results from MSA-correlated assessments.

"This whole process has not been clear. This whole process has not been fair," he said.

The seven counties that were submitting revised plans due June 7, in addition to Charles and St. Mary's, were Baltimore County, Cecil, Carroll, Prince George's, and Washington. Plans from fifteen county schools systems have already been approved. Baltimore County's superintendent, Dallas Dance, told me that while the MSAs might still be used by schools, the focus at the district and classroom level has really shifted to the common core, even though the assessments aligned to those new standards aren't ready yet.

"Why are we evaluating teachers on old tests?" he asked, referring to the MSAs.

Waiver in Jeopardy?

If this dust-up sounds familiar, that's because New York state went through a similar fight over exactly how student growth should count in teacher evaluations, and how much control districts should have in making that decision.

Weller also says in her letter that in future requests for waivers from the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now called the No Child Left Behind Act), the state education department should engage in a "more open and transparent process." The new teacher evaluations are a prominent feature in the state's NCLB waiver. Reinhard said the state wasn't thinking about the effect of a fight over teacher evaluations on the state's waiver.

As early as January last year, as I wrote for a different newspaper, the feds gave Maryland generally high marks on its implementation of Race to the Top, but did note some problems with the teacher-evaluation systems being developed. And as my colleague Michele McNeil wrote at the start of this year, the U.S. department expressed much stronger concern about the direction of the state's Race to the Top program—but once again, teacher evaluations were the source of the feds' concern. Two county school systems in Maryland, Frederick and Montgomery, didn't officially sign on to support the state's Race to the Top application back in 2010, and those two districts have different teacher evaluation requirements from the state.

"I wish we hadn't signed onto it," Laughlin said, referring to Race to the Top.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, loves to talk up the state's school system, ranked tops in the nation by Education Week for five years running, and the governor also has possible presidential ambitions. But this story, if it isn't resolved, likely won't get any ink from O'Malley's press office.

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