Maryland Legislators Reject Teacher Evaluation Reform

Published November 9, 2010

A vote by a committee of Maryland legislators casts doubt on a state proposal to require half of a teacher’s job evaluation to be based on student performance. The 12-3 vote against the Maryland State Department of Education’s (MSDE) plan to overhaul teacher pay and performance rules could also jeopardize the state’s $250 million federal Race to the Top grant.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) now has the option of approving the education department’s proposal without the legislature’s blessing. But along with inviting litigation, O’Malley would risk alienating his supporters in the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s teachers union.

The Nov. 8 vote by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review (AELR) means Maryland education officials will either have to revise their plans or push ahead with the governor’s backing. The latter course could invite future lawsuits from teachers over conflicts between the regulation and state law.

Under Maryland’s unusual regulatory approval process, the state legislature may offer an opinion about the legality of a proposed rule, though legislative approval of such rules is not required.

Legal Conflict
State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s County), says most of the AELR committee’s members believed the education department’s proposed rule conflicted with a new state law.

“I think people felt uncomfortable about the processes in the regulation,” Pinsky said. “People didn’t have a disagreement about wanting to have a high-quality evaluation system. They felt the law wasn’t followed.”

The Education Reform Act of 2010, which O’Malley signed in May, says teachers will be subject to ongoing evaluations and their students’ performance will be a “significant” component of the evaluations. But the law assigns county school boards, not the state Department of Education, the task of setting performance criteria for teachers.

In addition, the law requires county school boards to decide their criteria in concert with the local teachers union affiliate.

The Education Reform Act also states student performance criteria must use “multiple measures” to evaluate teacher performance, a concession to the union criticism that districts would simply rely upon the state’s standardized test. The law says no single criterion may count for more than 35 percent of the total teacher evaluation.

Different Standard Proposed
Because the state education department proposed a performance standard that not every school district has approved, and because the proposed standard makes student performance 50 percent of the evaluation, Delegate Anne Healey (D-Prince George’s County) says the evaluation plan might not hold up under a court’s scrutiny.

“The state education department seems to have preempted the process [of local school district-union determination of evaluation criteria] when it incorporated its own standard. If it is not in compliance with the law, the committee will have to make some recommendations,” said Healey.

The state’s Department of Education has indicated some willingness to make adjustments, but O’Malley’s office insists the teacher evaluation reforms will proceed with or without the legislature’s approval.

Long Controversy
The legislative committee’s vote is only the latest in a series of skirmishes that began in January when state officials began the application process to compete for Race to the Top money, says Adam Mendelson, managing director of communications and services for the Maryland State Education Association.

Teacher evaluations based in part on student performance were among several factors the U.S. Education Department considered when evaluating state applications for a portion of $4.35 billion in Race to the Top money. Maryland legislators passed the Education Reform Act to ensure the state would be eligible for the grant competition’s second round by the June 1 deadline.

While awaiting the U.S. education department’s decision on applications, O’Malley commissioned an MSDE task force to decide on the specific evaluation criteria that it would use. Until then there was nothing specific in place, only a general consensus that evaluations would be used.

“A lot of terms and a lot of parts still weren’t defined at the time,” Mendelson said.

The task force is due to submit a final plan by December 31.

Flexibility Sought
MSDE Communications Director Bill Reinhard says the taskforce has taken its time because not everyone agrees on how to measure student performance. Also, different classes and different schools may have higher or lower performance due to socioeconomic reasons that have nothing to do with the teacher, he notes.

“Students have different starting points, different needs. So students should be evaluated differently. That’s something that Maryland is working on,” Reinhard said. “It’s important that all these things be taken under consideration.”

Union support is also a factor. Mendelson said many of his union’s rank and file are uneasy about the new performance criteria. Among other things, he argues, the criteria could discourage teachers from working in low-performing or high-needs schools.

“The important part is to make sure that testing is a stethoscope and not a sledgehammer,” Mendelson added. “It’s important to make sure that test results aren’t where you just have a group of kids who just aren’t good test takers that year, or you have a school where the curriculum is misaligned with the test. There are all kinds of things that could throw the test.”

Rick Docksai ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.