The message to the St. Mary's school board last week from a state education representative was loud and clear — reforms will happen with or without federal Race to the Top funding.
The Maryland State Department of Education is working on its application for the federal initiative, which could net the state up to $250 million of more than a $4 billion pot of money aimed at pushing school districts to reform aspects of public education. The hope is that all local school board chairs, superintendents and teacher unions will sign off on the application.
Jim Foran, MSDE's executive director for high school and postsecondary initiatives, told the St. Mary's school board at a recent meeting that the state plans to go forward with the reforms whether individual counties want to join or not.
Increasing the time it takes for teachers and principals to earn tenure, adding student growth measures to their evaluations and paying stipends to teachers at the poorest-performing schools are some of the reforms on the horizon for Maryland public schools.
"The reforms we are talking about are the right things to do whether we get the [federal] money or not, and we will be doing them whether we get the money or not," Foran said. "We didn't become the No. 1 school system in the country by being satisfied with the status quo."
He said school systems will not lose local control over creating curriculum, even though that curriculum will have to meet not just state standards but now national standards. Foran said school systems will have some control over how the required information is taught.
Known as the Common Core Standards, the new national curriculum is expected to be adopted next month and will be just as rigorous as the current Maryland state curriculum, he said.
"We don't expect there to be a big difference," Foran said.
One difference, however, would be a new graduation requirement of four years of high school math, including Algebra II, he said. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum would also continue to be pressed.
There will have to be new assessment tests to match the national standards and the tests will be adopted in the next few years, he said.
The state has run into opposition from teacher unions on two reforms in particular — extending the time it takes for teachers to get tenure and adding student growth data to evaluations.
"This is probably the trickiest and hardest part," Foran said.
The Maryland General Assembly has drafted legislation that would help with the application process. The bill, known as the Education Reform Act of 2010, would require student growth data be used "as a significant component" in teacher and principal performance evaluations.
Foran said evaluations of educators need to move beyond finding out if the employee is "qualified" and into being "effective."
"We've got to figure out a way to define that," he said. The proposed solution is to incorporate student academic growth into teacher evaluations.
"There's nobody saying we want this based on a single test," he said.
He said there will be ethical and fairness issues to sort through, but ultimately it needs to be done.
"Shouldn't we be evaluating teachers on student growth? That is the purpose of what they're in the classroom for," he said.
"We're willing to work together," Wanda Twigg, president of the Education Association of St. Mary's County, said after the presentation. However, if the legislation doesn't contain the language unions want, they will not sign on to the application.
The local teachers union board voted last month not to support the application as its stands.
She said there is not much money at stake, considering the changes that would need to occur. St. Mary's stands to gain as much as $1.5 million, but that would be spread out over four years.
Most federal money now trickles down to local school districts through state departments of education based on need. However, that could change, Foran said, as other federal monies become tied to state education reforms and the funding moves from formula driven to competitive.
The state bill also would extend the probationary period of employment for teachers before they earn tenure from two to three years. This would require more teachers to be trained and paid as mentors and also would mean school systems have to increase their professional development programs.
"There's still a lot of work to do. There's some trust there that we have to build, we know that," Foran said.
The Maryland-based nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth has pushed for a credible plan to remove ineffective teachers, something the group says is difficult to do under current state regulations but a reform that would help the state win the Race to the Top funding.
The group also wants school districts to ensure that disadvantaged and minority students have equal access to talented teachers and principals. Maryland has one of the largest teacher talent gaps in the country between challenging and other schools, according to the group.
"Everybody needs to get ready to do a lot of work," said Sal Raspa, St. Mary's school board member. "We all know when things come down the line from the feds and the state to the local [school districts], it's a lot of work."
"The beauty of education is, it's always changing and it's always challenging," said Mary Washington, board member. "It's better for us just to collaborate."