Maryland Hits Hurdles in Race to the Top

Capital News Service

WASHINGTON – Problems with teacher evaluation systems and data management have only slightly strained Maryland’s progress toward implementing Race to the Top reforms, according to a report released by the Center for American Progress.

The report, released last week, evaluates the progress of the first 11 states, and the District of Columbia, to win funding for Race to the Top, a federal competitive grant program designed to spur educational reforms and innovations in states.

Maryland received $250 million as part of the second phase of states chosen in August 2010. After winning its grant, the Maryland State Department of Education created a Race to the Top office to manage all of its projects.

One of Maryland’s biggest strengths is its teacher development training, the report said.

The education department held Educator Effectiveness Academies last summer to inform teachers and principals from every school in the state about the Common Core standards, a common set of learning progress benchmarks essential to Race to the Top’s design.

Jim Foran, assistant state superintendent and one of the Race to the Top office’s main coordinators, said the Educator Effectiveness Academies were the most successful initiative in the past two years.

“Because of this, we’re probably farther along than any other state in terms of teaching the Common Core Standards,” Foran said.

Additionally, the state created an Online Instructional Toolkit a few years ago to help teachers bring in new curricula for their classrooms. The toolkit was widely used by educators throughout the state.

Other online learning tools, including a science and math teacher resource delivery system called STEMnet, also are in development.

The report lauded the efforts of the Breakthrough Center, an operation within the State Department of Education designed to organize and provide specialized support to Maryland’s lowest-performing schools.

Despite all the progress made, Maryland still had some difficulties redesigning teacher evaluation and data management systems, which Foran says are just “hiccups in the process.”

One of Race to the Top’s core concepts is the design of more clear-cut teacher evaluation systems that tie performance to student improvement and test scores, as well as professional development. In the past, teachers were evaluated mostly on preparation and classroom delivery.

But linking teacher assessments to student success is a relatively new science, and the process of creating a fair and accurate evaluation model is still being debated.

As a result, the council assigned to make a decision struggled to reach an agreement, and requested an extension from December 2010 to June 2011.

“Everyone has these issues,” Foran said. “You’ve got to make it work with teachers unions, administrators and principals. It’s nothing unsolvable, it just takes time.”

Now, the seven districts piloting the new evaluation system — Baltimore City and Baltimore, Charles, Kent, Prince George’s, Queen Anne’s and St. Mary’s counties — have only nine months with the new system instead of the originally intended 18, which narrows the margin of error on such a complex initiative.

Full implementation of the new teacher evaluation standards is set to begin with the 2013-2014 school year.

Maryland also had struggled to meet deadlines on data systems projects because of hiring issues and delays retaining contractors and receiving products, according to the report.

Foran said that when purchasing technology in large enough quantities, the procurement must be approved by another internal state agency, which was the main cause for delays.

“That has taken longer than anticipated,” Foran said. “But the truth of the matter is we’re caught up now, which is pretty remarkable.”

Ulrich Boser, the report’s author and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the state assessments were based on momentum in six key areas, including stakeholder support, teacher evaluation system implementation and state spending.

The report was “meant to be a story about what’s taking place, not an evaluation of the final project,” Boser said. “It’s just a snapshot in time.”

Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at Education Sector, said the report was “a helpful overview,” but added that the report could be seen by some as overly simplistic due to its use of simple, uniform measures to chart nuanced information.

“In each of the metrics, you can go more in depth to get a clearer picture. I think they used simple measures to compare each state,” Hyslop said.

Regardless, Race to the Top’s long-term goal of improving education in the United States resonates strongly throughout the teaching industry, and positive results from states like Maryland could lead to more and more states vying for grants in the coming years.

“I don’t think we’re at the point where we can gauge the long-term impact of Race to the Top,” Hyslop said. “But overall, Maryland is in really good shape.”