Maryland’s ‘Race to the Top’ Application: Failure Revealed

The Obama Administration’s education reform effort continues Washington’s enthusiasm for intellectually bankrupt ‘top-down’ reforms. As in foreign policy and policies relating to financial regulation, there is essential continuity between the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. The Obama reform approach essentially abandons any significant effort to alter failed grant in aid programs. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, with its destructive embrace of restrictions on school discipline, its requirement that large sums be spent on student classification and administrative paper-shuffling, its adherence to now-discredited ‘inclusion’ theories, and its charter for expensive lawsuits is to be maintained. So is the central thrust of the No Child Left Behind law, with its incentives to rote ‘teaching to the test’ and its encouragement of debasement of state testing standards.

The new element is a one-time program of discretionary grants to favored states, a travesty on federalism. As an inducement to permanent reform, this suffers from all the vices of the conditional grant-in-aid system, which has been analogized to an effort to put spaghetti through a key-hole. Race to the Top adds a new element to this failed approach: the keyhole is to be shut after a year or so of special appropriations.

The Obama Administration has supplied a template for state applications–a template with a heavy bias toward centralization and top-down reforms. States are not to be graded, except at the margins, on their willingness to open up the teaching force to new groups by drastically curtailing required education courses for teachers. The standards provide only limited encouragement for revision of seniority-based single salary schedules, beloved of the unions. There is some encouragement for charter schools, but no suggestion that every school should have its own empowered board, an idea anathema to the unions.

Maryland’s application is heavy on future promises and time-lines, and light on past achievements. When Maryland’s application fails, as it almost surely will, it is a document that will be tossed in the trash-basket, and will no longer disturb the peace of the unions and others committed to the status quo.

Nonetheless, even the limited questioning of existing practices contained in the federal template has embarrassed the State. Because the State was in such visible noncompliance with the federal suggestions, despite having been graced for an interminable period with its present Superintendent of Schools, it refrained from even attempting to compete in the first round of applications. A frantic effort was then made to perfume the state’s imperviousness to meaningful reform by securing new legislation adjusted to the federal template. This too encountered problems. The Governor was forbidden by his political masters in the teachers’ unions from relaxing, even minutely, the restrictions on charter schools contained in the nation’s weakest charter school law. The new procedures for teacher evaluation, currently nonexistent, were diluted to give the unions a large part in devising evaluation procedures and to reduce the State’s ability to consider student performance in evaluating teachers.

Here is a detailed look at Maryland’s application, with references to the point values assigned by the federal template to each portion of it:

Articulating agenda (5 points): Here the state offers the usual flood of buzz words.

Local agreements to agenda (45 points): Here states are to be rewarded for securing ‘buy-ins’ from local boards and unions. Completion of this part of the application is deferred; to date, Montgomery County, among other jurisdictions, has not ‘bought in.’

Reading and math improvement (15 points): Here the State touts some marginal improvements in test scores, omitting the fact that despite its wealth and high percentage of residents with graduate degrees, it is barely above the middle of the pack in student achievement In mathematics, its state rank is 25th at the fourth grade level and 14th at the eighth grade level. In reading, its rank is 17th at the fourth grade level and 21st at the 8th grade level.(Education Week, Maryland State Highlights, 2010,16.)

Building state control capacity (20 points): Here the state excels, being wedded to a large state education bureaucracy and all kinds of bureaucratic meddling.

Local support of state control capacity (10 points): This portion of the application is deferred.

Progress in raising achievement- last several years (5 points). Here there is a flood of soft data detailing new programs.

Progress in raising achievement since 2003 (25 points) . Here progress is shown using some measures, though it is not uniform and there are failures as respects some minority populations. There is no test of cost-effectiveness; the years in question have involved vast floods of new state funding. Notwithstanding this, the ‘poverty gap’ between performance of school-lunch-eligible and ineligible students is such as to rank Maryland 37th with respect to fourth grade reading and 34th with respect to eighth grade mathematics in 2007. (Education Week, Maryland State Highlights, 2010,16) and with respect to eighth grade mathematics students 50th in 2009. (Id.,6).

Participation in state consortia establishing standards (20 points). Maryland, like all but one or two states, has joined the new consortium being supported by the Obama administration.

Existing state standards (20 points). Here the well-documented debasement of Maryland’s standards is glossed over, as is the now-abandoned MSPAP fiasco that preceded it: a debatable curriculum reform dressed up as a standard-setting exercise.

Quality assessments (10 points). Here the state points to its elaborate testing program, resented by teachers, but says less about what is tested.

Supporting transition to high standards (20 points). Here the state points to recent centralization of control over local curricula..

Data systems (24 points). The State possesses these, in abundance, though unlike others they are not adapted either to tracking individual student performance or in associating it with particular teachers.

Accessing state data (5 points). This demonstrates that State data can be accessed, but not that it is useful, given its limitations.

Using data to support instruction (18 points). This is a ‘soft’ criterion, and the State’s application unleashes a profusion of buzz words.

High quality pathways for teachers (21 points). Here the State attempts to gloss over one of the most abysmal features of its record: its constriction of alternate certification programs. It proudly enumerates the programs which exist, but omits any quantitative data as to the number of teachers they produce. Except in Baltimore City, alternatively certified teachers make up a minute percentage of Maryland’s teaching force. The numbers have recently improved; alternatively certified teachers accounted for 704 of Maryland’s 7249 new teachers in the most recent year, (MSDE, Maryland Teacher Staffing Report, 2008-10, 17-18) double the previous year’s number, but still less than one-third the proportion obtaining in New Jersey, where 2295 of 7169 new teachers were alternatively certified in 2009. T. Dinges, “Alternate Route to Becoming a Teacher Thrives in New Jersey,” Newark Star-Ledger, April 12, 2009. Robert Embry, former Chairman of the Maryland State Board of Education, has recently protested against the hostility with which the MSDE staff under Superintendent Grasmick’s leadership scrutinizes applications for alternate certification. R. Embry, “Maryland Must Remove Barriers to Attracting Quality Teachers,” Baltimore Sun, February 1, 2010. According to the latest MSDE Teacher Staffing Report, 46.5% of Maryland’s physics teachers were not properly qualified in physics.

Performance-Based Evaluation of Teachers (28 points). More than a decade into the Grasmick era, such evaluation is revealed to be virtually nonexistent except for the first two years of teaching. The administration’s efforts at the 2010 session to provide a system in which all teachers were not automatically rated “Satisfactory” resulted in an increase in the probationary period to three years, the evaluation mechanisms for more experienced teachers being effectively gutted by the legislature. In addition, the new law is further vitiated by Senate Bill 590 of 2010 which creates a new Labor Relations Board with five members, two selected by the unions, which will supplant the State Board of Education as the arbiter of collective bargaining deadlocks.

Equitable Distribution of Teachers, Areas (15 points). Here the State refers to little-used statutory provisions reserving to school boards authority over assignment of teachers, though acknowledging that the seniority provisions in union contracts have been allowed to cause the most-experienced teachers to gravitate to the least-needy schools. “The State Board has declared that transfer and assignment are not legal topics for collective bargaining. That being said, collective bargaining agreements in Maryland legally can address the process and procedure for transfer and assignment/reassignment and they likely do in most jurisdictions, particularly seniority rights.” (Application, pg. 132). The Application does not disclose that Superintendent Grasmick has acquiesced in enactment of Senate Bill 590, which would overrule the State Board by subjecting transfers to collective bargaining. The State lists a number of programs providing minor bonuses of $1000-2000 to teachers accepting less-desired assignments. At the eighth grade level, the percentage point gap in experienced math teachers for less wealthy students is such as to rank Maryland 35th among the 50 states.(Education Week, Maryland State Highlights, 2010,6.)

Equitable Distribution of Teachers, Subjects (10 points). The State here boasts of a number of small programs providing tuition reimbursements and stipends for prospective science and math teachers, the ineffectuality of which is demonstrated by the annual MSDE Teacher Staffing Report, which persistently records a shortage of qualified mathematics and hard science teachers. No suggestion is made that additional salaries be paid to teachers of scarce disciplines.

Improving Teacher Preparation Programs (14 points) Here the State points to various programs for in-service preparation of teachers

Support for Teachers (20 points) This standard likewise renders relevant a number of existing Maryland programs

Identification of Lowest Performing Schools (5 points). Here Maryland can point to its testing programs.

Turning Around Lowest Performing Schools (35 points). Here the State refers to the various statutory mechanisms for state assistance and takeovers. Left unmentioned is the action of the General Assembly in intervening in the only instance, late in the Ehrlich administration, in which these mechanisms were seriously sought to be applied.

Educational Funding (10 points). Here the State points with pride to the enormous Thornton increases.

Charter Schools (40 points). Here the State points to its enabling legislation, to the fact that some charter schools exist, and to its regulations on charter schools.. Left unmentioned are the subjection of charter schools to union rules, the lack of alternative chartering authorities, and the lack of meaningful provisions for assistance in acquiring facilities.

Other significant reforms (5 points). This criterion relates to building-level management and like reforms, as to which Maryland has nothing to offer other than a single SEED boarding school.

Science, Math and Technology (15 points). Here the State lists a number of small-bore programs offering nominal stipends; it records no programs for added pay for teachers or to create more specialized high schools.

Any grant Maryland receives under these criteria will reflect its Democratic political affiliation, not the efforts of its education policymakers.

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