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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Race away from the top: Post criticizes Sen. Pinsky for confict of interest

Race away from the top.
Post, 11 Nov 2010 (Editorial).
IT'S HARD TO imagine that Maryland lawmakers would jeopardize $250 million in federal education dollars, particularly in these tight budget times. That, though, is what a special committee of the General Assembly has done in following the lead of its chairman, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's). The committee voted against regulations requiring teachers and principals to be judged by how effectively they promote student achievement. What makes the committee's action more disturbing is Mr. Pinsky's conflict as an employee of the teachers union that is fighting these sensible new rules.
We also hope that this latest - and most egregious - example of a lawmaker refusing to recuse himself from an issue where there is a conflict of interest prompts the General Assembly to do something about its lax ethics rules. Essentially the only thing required is disclosure and an assertion that the lawmaker can overcome any conflict. No doubt Mr. Pinsky brings valuable expertise to the discussion, as he argued to us. But that does not obviate the evident conflict when Mr. Pinsky, a union organizer for the Montgomery County Education Association, plays a leading role on an issue that directly affects his employer. It's time that legislative leaders overcome their romanticism about the wonders of citizen lawmakers and establish rules with integrity.
[Full editorial]
Sen. Pinsky's response.

Once again the Washington Post gets it wrong on education: accusing me of jeopardizing Race to the Top money earmarked for Prince George's County and, additionally, weakening state efforts to reform our schools.

Set aside the fact that the Post reporter didn't even attend this week's hearing of the state's AELR Committee (Administrative, Executive & Legislative Review), which I chair. The assertions by the Post are simply wrong. The regulations proposed by the Maryland State Department of Education simply don't comply with state law and there's no reason to believe the committee's rejection of the proposed regulations jeopardizes any federal school funds.

Last spring, I actually served as floor leader (explaining and defending the bill on the Senate floor) for Gov. O'Malley's bill to reform teacher tenure laws, change teacher and principal evaluation systems and provide support in high-poverty schools.

The state superintendent of schools, Dr. Nancy Grasmick, proposed regulations, required by passage of the law, that actually ignored the state law. They would remove local school system input and decision-making, while actually jeopardizing the most effective evaluation systems already in place around the state. The state superintendent simply didn't like the law we passed and was attempting to do an 'end-run' around the state law. How do we know this? A member of the State Board of Education admitted as much: writing in a recent journal article that "Nancy Grasmick, willingly took on the Maryland legislature . . . using her regulatory power to interpret a new state law on teacher evaluation much differently than the . . . legislature intended."

Because of these facts, the AELR Committee rejected the regulations by a 12-3 vote and asked Dr. Grasmick to go back, get them right and comply with the law. This may mean a minor change to the state's Race to the Top application, an allowance included in the application. No one, including me, wants to jeopardize additional funds for our schools.

I don't want to get too detailed or "in the weeds" on the issue but what follows is a little further explanation:

The law passed in April required the state Board of Education (BoE) to solicit information and recommendations from the 24 school systems and convene a meeting to discuss the feedback before new regulations were generated so they would know what is working and what is not. This was ignored.

Next, the law called on the State BoE to (1) adopt 'general standards' for evaluation systems (observations, evidence, rigor, including using data on student growth as a 'significant component') and (2) developmodel evaluation criteria.

The law then directed that each of the 24 local school systems, the superintendents, school boards and teachers, develop a system collaboratively, including how to use data on student growth -- under those general standards.

And finally, as a 'hammer" if they couldn't come to agreement within six months, the complete state-developed system would go into effect.

The state-proposed regulations, which the committee rejected, included in their 'general standards' a 'general standard' requiring 50% of all evaluations, including evaluations for new teachers, be based on student growth from newly developed student tests. The lawyer for the state board declared the regulations were simply "specific general regulations." (That's usually called an oxymoron.)

What's wrong with this picture? Not only would this requirement remove flexibility and collaboration from the local school systems, it very likely would result in the dismantling of some of the most effective evaluation systems in the state and a massive expansion of mandated statewide standardized testing of all students in all grades and subjects.

Our neighbor to the west, Montgomery County, has a teacher evaluation system where brand new teachers, and teachers-at-risk (experienced teachers) deemed to not meet the county standards, are offered support for a year. If at the end of the year they have not improved, they are removed. Over the last nine years close to 5,000 teachers received this support; over 450 teachers who didn't meet the county's standards after the support were dismissed or left the system, the largest number in the state. And who votes to recommend dismissal of the teachers who have not improved? Representatives of the teachers union and the principals union. This system would have to be radically changed or dumped if the new regulations had been adopted.

The Prince George's County superintendent has also closely collaborated with the county teachers union to develop new improvements in a number of schools. The school system has already received millions of federal dollars on another grant and successfully worked together. This type of collaboration and flexibility would be seriously compromised with the new regulations. That's why I, too, voted to reject these regulations.

Additionally, while I believe student achievement should be a component of assessing teachers' effectiveness, the proposed solution is not only simplistic and formulaic, it has no data or research to show it works. In fact, there has not been one study to show this 'solution' will get the results intended. A recent study showed just the opposite: in New York City, the least amount of student growth on test scores came from new teachers in their first or second year of teaching (not surprisingly). Should we fire all new teachers because of their lack of experience? And finally, do parents want more testing in the schools that don't count towards student grades just so teachers can be ranked and sorted by numbers? I think the answers are obvious.

All the committee said was, "go back and get it right."

That's why I thought you deserved a fuller explanation, something the Washington Post chose not to provide.

Paul Pinsky
(Updated 12 Nov 2010)

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