Monday, June 13, 2011

Getting it right shouldn’t be wrong

By Tina Dove
National Director, Opportunity to Learn Campaign

Studies show that access to a highly effective teacher – one who has strong content and pedagogy expertise and classroom experience – can significantly improve student achievement. And it’s imperative that federal leaders be willing to watch, learn and support replication of programs that have proven sound and successful. Instead, the federal Race to the Top competitive funding program has forced state education leaders to turn down millions of dollars in potential funding because they refuse to abandon programs that are working quite well.

Take, for example, the highly productive and widely lauded Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program in use in Maryland’s Montgomery County schools for just over a decade, a diverse district with 145,000 students, one-third of them from low-income families. During his tenure, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast developed PAR – the only program of its kind in the nation – into a model of teacher professional development.

As a former high school teacher, I can attest to the value of a collaborative endeavor such as PAR that engages teachers in the work evaluation process and avoids the pitfalls that come with a system that is punitive and confrontational. Through PAR, as reported in a recent New York Times article, several hundred senior teachers mentor new teachers and struggling veterans; a panel of eight teachers and eight principals oversees the progress of mentoring and helps makes decisions about how to proceed with struggling educators.

The New York Times also reported:

  •     The teachers’ union president says the program has fostered a more trusting relationship between his members and school system leadership. Five years ago, when the school system asked teachers to forego a 5.3 percent pay raise to help close budget gaps, the union agreed.  “We formulate the budget,” said Doug Prouty, union president. “We know where the money is, which makes us more trusting.” PAR, Prouty said, wouldn’t work without that trust.
  •      State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick has praised it as an “excellent system for professional development.” 
  •        The PAR panel has voted to fire 200 teachers, and an additional 300 have left rather than go through the PAR progress. 
  •         Nearly 85 percent of Montgomery County students attend college and 63 percent of them go on to earn degrees. 
  •        Among all of the nation’s Black students who pass an Advanced Placement test, 2.5 percent of them live in Montgomery County – more than five times its share of the country’s Black population.

In standing by his district’s program, Superintendent Weast was forced to turn down $12 million in Race to the Top funding because despite his obvious successes in improving teacher quality through PAR, the RTTT grant would have required him to shift course and use students’ state test results in assessing teacher performance. 

The bottom line is that Montgomery County’s program is yielding strong and consistent results that are improving the teacher corps there and helping students to succeed academically.

As Weast told The New York Times, the problem with Race to the Top’s teacher-evaluation system is that it imposes standards instead of including teachers and principals in the process of developing those standards. “People don’t tear down what they help build,” Weast said.

We at the OTL Campaign agree.  

Weast is creating opportunities to thrive for his teaching corps and opportunities to learn for the thousands of children in his system, and Race to the Top should reward proven educational reform approaches instead of aiming for one-size-fits-all methods that have produced uneven results.

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