Autonomy of Local Schools Uncertain


ANNAPOLIS—Maryland teachers have been overwhelmed by challenges this school year as a result of an abundance of changes to education policy. But the struggle played out in individual classrooms is a symptom of a larger three-way battle for control over education in the state.

This tug of war has led to threats of legal action, as well as unnecessary anxiety for those that carry the most influence on students’ learning: teachers.

“I am disappointed by [the Maryland Department of Education’s] recent attempts to ... strong-arm local schools systems into outcomes that do not best serve our students,” said Betty Weller, president of the statewide teachers union, in a 2013 letter addressed to state Superintendent Lillian Lowery.

Across Maryland, some local school officials are wary that the state Department of Education and federal education authorities may be usurping their autonomy.

That has left some administrators and bureaucrats “grappling for control,” according to one teachers union official.

The difficulties educators struggled with include the hastily rolled out Common Core State Standards and having to teach to an outdated state assessment, while being evaluated by a new system, according to state officials and the teachers union alike.

“It was the largest education development program in Maryland history,” said Bill Reinhard, spokesperson for the Maryland State Department of Education.

None of these struggles stemmed from endeavors initiated on the local level.

Education Overhaul in Maryland

Common Core was adopted by the Maryland State Board of Education in 2010 and was implemented in September. Agreeing to follow the national standards played a pivotal role in both Maryland’s receipt of $250 million from the Race to the Top federal grant and a waiver that exempts schools from the strict standards required by No Child Left Behind, both programs from the U.S. Department of Education, according to school officials.

The grant and waiver both require a high-stakes student assessment. The results of these tests must carry 20 percent weight when evaluating teachers, according to federal rules. State law, however, provides much less specific requirements.

Race to the Top was approved by nearly every local school system in the state, with the exception of Frederick and Montgomery Counties, but the waiver only needed compliance by the state Department of Education.

Essentially, the state signed onto federal requirements that stretched into the local schools, though the majority of those systems agreed to these for the duration of Race to the Top, which concludes in September, according to the state teachers union.

However, according to the state Department of Education, the requirements were not forced bindings.

“I don’t want to give some kind of illusion here that [the federal government] has held our feet to a fire,” said Dave Volrath, the head of development of teacher evaluations for the state Department of Education.

Regardless, these obligations from the U.S. Department of Education distressed teachers.

For example, because the student assessment that aligned with Common Core was only in the pilot phase, the state had to administer the old test, which did not match the new curricula, in order to conform to the federal mandates.

Emergency legislation was put before the General Assembly this session to halt the test, but was successfully opposed by the state Department of Education for fear of jeopardizing the remainder of the grant and voiding the waiver.

Specific Requirements For Teacher Evaluations

However, the larger point of contention was the creation of new teacher evaluation models. Though 22 of the 24 Maryland systems agreed to the Race to the Top standards, many still submitted evaluation models in 2012 that used less than 20 percent weight of state student assessments, which were rejected by the state Department of Education.

In response to the state’s rejection of their model, Baltimore County Public Schools challenged the bureaucracy’s jurisdiction.

“…We believe that [the state Department of Education’s] directive to increase our [student assessment] proportion to 20 percent of the overall student growth model is beyond the legal authority of [the department] and/or the State Board of Education,” said Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance in a letter to Lowery, dated December 14, 2012, obtained by Capital News Service through a Maryland Public Information Act request. “… We reserve our rights to pursue other alternative remedies, including enforcement in court, if necessary, to prevent what we believe is an attempt to usurp local board authority, which is clearly preserved in the statute.”

Baltimore County schools, however, did not take any legal action. Officials declined to give insight on future plans when state assessments again become usable.

Despite the disagreement, Assistant Superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools Billy Burke said the district “didn’t feel muscled into any of the decisions.”

However, if a school system refused to comply, there’s no standard penalty in place, according to state, local and union officials.

Dorchester County also had their original model of teacher evaluations rejected because of too little weight given to student assessments. The school system, however, has a comfortable relationship with state officials.

“We worked very closely with [the state Department of Education],” said Superintendent of Dorchester County Public Schools Henry Wagner. “We were free, in my opinion, to design something that would be in need for our district.”

Wagner acknowledged the federal department’s role in creating the models.

“The parameters for this were established pretty clearly by [the U.S. Department of Education] …” Wagner said.

Not all agree that the federal officials know best, however.

“As it relates to teacher evaluations, this clearly needs to be a locally developed item,” said Sean Johnson, legislative director of the statewide teachers union.

A report by the federal Department of Education released last month determined that it was “unclear” if the state bureaucracy was effectively able to assess the teacher evaluation models before their implementation at the beginning of this school year.

Additionally, the local teachers unions were less inclined to support Race to the Top.

“It is worth noting that when the superintendent and the Board of Education of St. Mary’s County signed the assurances to Race to the Top, before any specifics of the grant were provided, the [union] declined to sign,” said school officials from the county in a letter to Lowery dated December 21, 2012.

In short, Race to the Top’s requirements allowed evaluation models to be approved without necessarily having agreement from the local union, as required by state law.

Notably, the state’s model, which goes into effect if the union and the school system do not agree, uses the 20 percent weight.

Additionally, this quantitative analysis of student growth demanded in teacher evaluations, as required by Race to the Top, was an important factor in Frederick County’s decision not to sign onto the federal grant.

“We’ve been working on our evaluation system for ten years,” said Larkin Hohnke, the school system’s instructional director for high schools.

Johnson added: “We’ve argued all along, whether it’s the feds that say 20 percent or [the state] that says 20 percent, it’s still an arbitrary number.” That amount is not “tested or research proven,” he added.

Delay Of Using Test Data Stalls Debate

Because of the misalignment of the test used, as well as insufficient baseline data from the new assessment that will be completely administered next school year, the General Assembly passed a bill with support from the Maryland’s teachers union that would delay the use of student scores in teacher evaluations until the 2016-2017 school year.

The bill still needs Gov. Martin O’Malley’s signature.

Though the state Department of Education was already pushing the delay at the federal level, the bill made the General Assembly, and therefore voters, aware of the plight facing local systems.

“The reason for doing it was to codify what the [state] Department of Education was submitting to the U.S. Department of Education,” Johnson said.

Another bill awaiting O’Malley’s signature may also help school systems retain autonomy. The law requires the state Department of Education to present all waivers to the General Assembly prior to submitting them to the federal department.

“Waivers submitted over the last several years have not conformed to state law and … stripped local systems of the flexibility to develop innovative, dynamic and locally driven teacher and principal evaluations,” a press release by the state teachers union promoting the bill said.

Adam Mendelson, spokesperson for the teacher’s union added: “It gives an opportunity for dialogue there. Better communication is only going to help the implementation process.”

State officials, however, feel their process has been reasonable.

“I believe that what Maryland has done with the [waiver] has been … fair,” Volrath said.

The waivers, however, may be another way to handcuff local school systems to federal requirements, including the weight of student growth as measured through exams for teacher evaluations.

Most likely, every school in the state, or even the country, has failed to reach the strict No Child Left Behind standards, according to state and union officials.

Without a waiver, many Maryland schools would face punishment as harsh as “reopening as a public charter school, replacing all or most of the staff or entering into a contract with a private entity to operate the school,” according to the state Department of Education’s written opposition to one of the bills.

However, state, local and union officials alike are uncertain if the U.S. Department of Education would take such a strong stance because of the common failure to reach the stringent standards.

Maryland, as well as other states and the national department are “navigating uncharted waters” and are “in an area of a lot of gray for federal accountability,” according to Mendelson.

Additionally, the state Department of Education refused to make a statement whether they would require the local systems to use a certain percentage without obligation from their federal counterpart, though they have no legal authority to do so.

“I hope that the success of passing these things this year doesn’t slow things down so much as allow us to take a breath and see if what we’re doing is good for students and educators,” said Johnson, of the teachers union.

He admitted however, that there will always be “grappling for local control.”

Autonomy Still Not Secured

Despite the new laws passed, there are still red flags for local autonomy.

One example of the state Department of Education’s overreach was their attempt to force both Montgomery and Frederick Counties to conform to the 20 percent weight, though they had no authority to do so.

Because neither system signed onto Race to the Top, they responded with firm refutations.

Additionally, the state Department of Education opposed the bill that delayed test usage in teacher evaluations, as it also changed some of the language in the existing. The amendment would clarify that the use of the state’s teacher evaluation model would only be used if the union and the school system failed to reach an agreement.

The department worried that this would limit their ability to require a degree of conformity.

“There are uncertainties as to the intent and possible implications of this language … thereby eliminating any standard in local models and avoiding any common accountabilities,” the department said in its written opposition to the bill. “No common performance standards or method for validating the local models would be accomplished.”

Volrath added in an interview: “Without any sense of commonality, it invites the potential for low levels of accountability. Without those forces of play in fairness, nothing would level the playing field for anyone.”

Additionally, Volrath felt confident that the state Department of Education gave fair control to local systems.

“There is a framework for both the teacher and principal evaluations that has components that everyone is required to have pieces of,” Volrath said. “Within those component pieces, there’s a lot of flexibility…”

“We have moved to a middle ground and [the local systems] have come closer to us,” he continued. Volrath also added that “only 38 percent of teachers are affected” by using test score data because of their subject area.

The state teachers union, however, saw certain requirements as an overextension of power from the state department.

“The state law is very clear in what it says,” Mendelson said. “The intent … was for local systems to develop criteria for their evaluation systems.”

Additionally, though Maryland’s application for the waiver from the stringent No Child Left Behind standards specifically cites using 20 percent of student assessments for teacher evaluations, the U.S. Department of Education does not specifically list the amount on its nationwide guidelines.

Another important factor is that tests only have a limited usefulness for measuring student growth.

“Inherently, growth measures two distinct points in time, a beginning point and an endpoint,” Burke said. “We need to be careful to be sure that we don’t put too much on the weight of that test.”

A better measure of student growth, according to school and union officials, is the student learning objectives created by teachers in alignment with Common Core.

Despite these challenges, some local school systems remain optimistic.

“I think as we move forward, my hope is that it’ll continue to be collaborative,” Wagner said.

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