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Posted at 10:30 PM ET, 04/19/2010

Maryland’s big education mistake

By Valerie Strauss

Education officials in state after state are moving to contort their elementary and secondary school systems to align with the priorities of Education Secretary Arne Duncan to win some of the $3 billion being dangled by the Obama administration in its Race to the Top competition.

States can win some of the cash by promising to link teacher pay to standardized test scores, to expand charter schools and to take other steps that Duncan says will improve public schools.

There is no research that promises that these initiatives will improve public schools. And starting off long-term reforms on a one-time allocation of funds does not make for the smartest financial planning. But the states march on anyway, and Maryland has become one of the latest to hop on the bandwagon.

It is especially unfortunate to Maryland, a state with a well-regarded education system, promote reforms that include some that have no basis in research--or in common sense.

Maryland has unveiled a draft Race to the Top proposal that would tie teacher evaluations to student performance, lengthen teacher probation to three years and toughen graduation requirements in math and science, among other proposals. State lawmakers just passed legislation with those initiatives to strengthen the application, which seeks up to $250 million.

Folks who are handicapping the Race to the Top competition say Maryland doesn’t have a great shot in the second round; it skipped the first, in which Delaware and Tennessee beat out 14 other finalists, including the Washington D.C., for money.

The winners’ proposals promised much more change than Maryland’s, but even if it doesn’t, State Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick said the reforms will be implemented anyway.

The new legislation, which will be part of the state’s application for Race to the Top money due June 1, will require new Maryland teachers to wait three years before they can earn tenure, and those at risk of failing to earn tenure would receive additional mentoring. Currently Maryland teachers get tenure after two years.

Fine so far.

Most states give tenure after three years, though the Republican-led Florida Legislature just tried to eliminate teacher tenure but was stopped when the Republican governor vetoed the bill.

Problems arise, though with the provision that student performance should be a factor in teacher evaluations and pay, though it does not say how big a role student standardized test scores would play.

If teachers were the only thing standing between a student and progress, it would make sense for them to be evaluated entirely on how well their students perform.

But they aren’t.

Some in the education world may want to pretend that a student’s home life doesn’t actually affect what goes on in school, but that’s just plain silly.

Hungry kids, sick kids, kids who need glasses but don’t have them--those kids aren’t likely to do well on a standardized test. Even kids who don’t face those basic issues can do poorly on a test because of test anxiety.

This doesn’t mean that schools can’t do a lot to educate young people who live in these conditions; it just means that expecting the schools, and teachers, to work miracles, is ridiculous.

In fact, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and two co-authors seemed to set up a straw man by writing:

“In the debate over how to fix American public education, many believe that schools alone cannot overcome the impact that economic disadvantage has on a child, that life outcomes are fixed by poverty and family circumstances, and that education doesn’t work until other problems are solved.

“This theory is, in some ways, comforting for educators. After all, if schools make only a marginal difference, we can stop faulting ourselves for failing to make them work well for millions of children. It follows that we can stop working to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as No Child Left Behind) and stop competing in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, which promises controversial changes.”

First of all, the folks I know who know that poverty affects student performance in school also know that schools and teachers can have an important influence in a child’s life.

Second, it seems important for Klein to remember that under his tenure and his business approach to public schools, the percentage of African American and Hispanic children accepted into gifted and talented programs -- based entirely on a standardized test score-- dropped from 46 percent to 22 percent, according to education historian Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System."

And, she said, under Klein, the number of black students admitted to selective high schools plummeted. Of 900 freshmen, in 2004 there were 83 black students; by 2009, only 7 black students qualified; Hispanic students dropped from 96 to 17.

Meanwhile, in 2009, when Klein announced the expansion of charter schools, he didn’t mention that of 51,316 public school students in the city who were homeless, only 11 were enrolled in charter schools.

So much for Klein’s reforms alleviating the problems that come with living in poverty.

Now let’s look at the issue of research.

Duke University Professor Helen Ladd, an expert on assessment, wrote to the Education Department in 2009, warning against using test scores for teacher evaluation because, she said, she has reviewed all the research on the subject and there isn’t any that shows that judging teachers by test scores will make them better teachers.

In regard to the issue of using test scores to provide information that would make it easier for administrators to dismiss low performing teachers, Ladd said that it could in fact be sensible for administrators to make “some use” of student test score information in teacher evaluation “provided such information is embedded in a more comprehensive approach.”

“The question is how much and how to do it in a fair way. My own recent overview of the research on teacher effects highlights the tremendous difficulties that arise in using student test scores in a fair way to evaluate teachers.”

Until those “tremendous difficulties” are overcome, it is patently unfair to use these scores in teacher evaluation and pay.

We now know what happened in the No Child Left Behind era, when an emphasis on standardized tests served mostly to narrow curriculum and turn many classrooms into test prep factories. Why anybody think it is a good idea to make test scores even more important is a mystery to me.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 19, 2010; 10:30 PM ET
Categories:  Race to the Top, Teachers  | Tags:  Duncan and Race to the Top, Maryland Race to the Top proposal, Maryland schools, Obama and Race to the Top, Obama and schools, Race to the Top, performance pay and teachers, teacher pay, teacher pay for performance, teachers, value added models  
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Great post, Valerie! When teachers make these arguments, it's often perceived as self interest. With more blogs and columns like this, and more researchers speaking out like Prof. Ladd, more parents and school boards backing us up as they did in Florida the past couple months, maybe the reform agenda can take a turn in a better direction.

For more on the faulty assumptions about testing and teachers, see

Posted by: DavidBCohen | April 20, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

DavidBCohen--Thank you for posting the link to the Accomplished California Teachers' blog. I have read a number of the entries and hope to read more.

It is remarkable that legislators feel that standardized tests which only assess a mere fraction of what we teach can be reliable indicators of our abilities as teachers. I am a NBCT in Early Childhood/Early Adolescent Music. Nothing that was used to assess my ability as a teacher by the NBPTS would be evident in a standardized test in my content area. Yet Maryland is hard at work with plans to create tests in areas such as mine. Students will no longer receive the rich instruction they currently receive once these tests are developed and used as a large part of teacher evaluations. My current school system has an evaluation system based on the principals used by NBPTS. It is a good system but it takes a lot of time and personnel to implement it effectively. Unfortunately in their quest to dismantle public education, Conservative legislators have decided that they would rather do education "on the cheap." To devise a truly accurate means of evaluation would cost too much money. So we are the ones who are demonized with accusations of not caring about the students. They certainly have that wrong! There has to be a way for us to get our message across to the public.

Posted by: musiclady | April 20, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Thank you! Thank You! ;-)

A Florida Teacher

After hearing our legislators praise Finland and their marvelous test scores and say we want to do what Finland does I decided to investigate what Finland actually does to educate their children. I found that most of it was the opposite of what our wonderful brilliant (not!) legislators were proposing. They threw out high stakes standardized tests years ago. Teachers all have higher degrees, are highly respected (gasp!) and essentially control their work place locally, teaching with standards that are written generally rather than specifically.

Schools are not expected to provide their poor children with all life's necessities and then be blamed for all of societies ills. Everyone actually works together to ensure that all children have what they need to be successful, creating one of the most equitable education outcomes in the world.

I am sad to think that even the consideration of such practices is unthinkable under our present system. Thank you for speaking for what might be possible.

As for my Title I school, I had three children come to me on Monday morning asking for our school to provide them with free printing for birthday invitations (I offered paper and markers), medical care for a possibly broken finger that had been untreated since the beginning of the weekend and school supplies for a child who never seems to have any of his own. The last two requests were met as we are lucky enough to have a nurse and some of our Title I funds are dedicated to provide supplies for children in need. These are common place everyday requests at our school and I usually just do what I can, but after SB6 I have a new view of these requests as it made me realize more fully the expectations that our politicians keep piling on the public schools. The whole situation makes me both sad and angry at the same time. I will continue to do what I can for the kids because they are the ultimate victims of these inhumane policies, but it is wrong on so many levels to expect teachers and schools to do these jobs alone with little or no support from the rest of society, expecially the politicians themselves.

Posted by: kmlisle | April 20, 2010 10:05 PM | Report abuse

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