Donald Fry: Finding common ground in teacher evaluation

By Donald C. Fry

New recommendations from a state panel appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley signal the beginning of what some say will be a “sea change” in how Maryland public school teachers and principals are evaluated.

A set of recommendations issued June 20 by the Maryland Council for Educator Effectiveness would put into motion a two-year process of implementing an evaluating system where 50 percent of an educator’s job rating will be based on student performance.

The council’s report – submitted to Gov. O’Malley, the General Assembly, and the Maryland State Board of Education – proposes separate evaluation tracks for teachers and principals that would ultimately assign each individual a rating of highly effective, effective, or ineffective.

Developing a new educator evaluation system was among the reforms Maryland committed to implement in order to gain federal Race to the Top funding from the U.S. Department of Education. Maryland is among 11 states and the District of Columbia to be awarded the competitive federal funding last year.

The recommendations from the council define various aspects of teacher and principal evaluations, set general standards for the evaluation process and establish a framework for the evaluations. They also allow local school systems significant flexibility to develop their own measures to gauge student progress.

Systems whose school boards, teachers and principals find themselves unable to agree upon and to gain state approval of their own guidelines for student growth and other evaluation elements will be subject to the state’s default evaluation system, as developed and refined during the two-year testing process.

Inherent tension
Baltimore City, where unions and the school board recently agreed to a new outcome-based evaluation process, and Baltimore County are among seven jurisdictions whose public school systems will test the Council for Educator Effectiveness recommendations over the next two years in pilot programs that will begin this fall. Other test jurisdictions are Prince George’s, St. Mary’s, Charles, Kent, and Queen Anne’s counties.

The educator effectiveness council made an effort in its report to point out that its recommendations were made not to punish teachers and principals rated as “ineffective” but to foster their improvement. “Although difficult personnel decisions will inevitably need to be made in the case of persistently ineffective teachers and principals, the Council believes that helping educators improve is the primary purpose of evaluation,” the council report states.

However, seven teachers and teacher representatives on the 20-member council, including one of its two co-chairs, voted against implementing the recommendations. This exposes an inherent institutional tension that exists among educators. Teachers, even very good ones, tend to be instinctively wary of measurement “reform” and processes developed by education bureaucracies.

Nevertheless, it’s in the best interests of students, parents, future employers of the students, and state taxpayers for teachers and administrators to find common ground.

Even with these recommendations, significant issues relating to educator evaluation remain to be resolved. Teachers must adapt and work with administrators to craft and accept a reasonable, results-oriented evaluation process. The amount of public money spent on K-12 education – typically more than half of the budget in any Maryland county, demands that such a process be in place.

Too much remediation
This brings me, as an advocate for employers, to one glaring related outcome that needs to change – the rate of Maryland high school graduates who need remedial courses in math, English, or reading once they get to college.

More than half of Maryland’s high school graduates who go to college need remediation, according to the most recent data from the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Almost 54 percent of our state’s high school graduates who enrolled in college in 2008 – the most recent year for which data is available – needed some type of basic remediation.

Forty-nine percent of non-college-prep high school graduates needed math remediation. For college-prep graduates, 32 percent needed math remediation. The remediation problem extends to all Maryland counties. In 19 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions, more than 50 percent of high school graduates who enrolled in college in the 2007-2008 school year needed remedial courses – often only months after they received their diplomas.

This is as basic a measurement of education effectiveness as it gets. A statewide education system that produces these levels of high school graduates who simply don’t know enough about core academic subjects when they get to college or enter the workforce raises broad legitimate questions about the education process, its cost effectiveness, and the fundamental nature of today’s education environment.

This is a key issue not just for K-12 educators and colleges, but for employers. Regardless of national rankings and standardized test scores, Maryland must produce an exceptionally knowledgeable workforce if our state is to successfully compete for business and economic growth in the highly competitive post-recession economy.

Whatever measures of individual student achievement and educator effectiveness the state develops, it must convert them into policies and procedures that reverse these unacceptable trends. Maryland’s education system must ensure that it is preparing and producing college-ready and workforce-ready graduates.

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