Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 8

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Part D (2) of the Race to the Top application has to do with “improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance.”  This single section of the application is worth 58 points out of the 500 total points available, making it one of the most important sections in the entire application.

It is also, as I discussed in an earlier paper on Maine and the Race to the Top, a section that Maine could struggle with mightily. Simply put, Maine has virtually no policies in place with regard to teacher and administrator effectiveness.  A recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), for example, which I discussed in a May 9, 2010 column in the Lewiston Sun Journal, found Maine so severely lacking when it came to policies that support effective teaching that it slapped the state with a grade of “F” for them.  As the map below indicates, only five other states scored as poorly.

Source: The National Council on Teacher Quality

In response to these issues, the Department proposes in the RTT application to “design an evaluation system that is able to differentiate effective from ineffective teachers.” The so-called “Multi-faceted Professional Accountability System,” or MPAS, “will link individual teachers and principals with student achievement data and provide student growth data for educator evaluations.”  “The proposed system,” the state continues, “mandates that an educator cannot be rated effective or highly effective unless they have demonstrated satisfactory levels of student growth.”

This sounds promising enough, and while the Department goes so far as to lay out a timeline for developing the MPAS program, some nagging concern remains.

The state is vague about how student performance data is actually to be used, for instance. “Rather than set a specific percentage that student growth must be weighed in the evaluation, the MPAS reduces the possibility a teacher could be rated as effective without showing satisfactory levels of student growth,” the Department writes.

“Reduces the possibility”?  What does that even mean?

Contrast Maine’s position on this issue to that of Delaware, which won the first round of the RTT competition.  “In Delaware,” that state wrote in its RTT application, “student growth is not one factor among many; instead satisfactory student growth is the minimum requirement for any educator to be rated effective.”  “Student growth,” the Delaware team wrote, “is now considered essential to teacher and leader effectiveness” (emphasis theirs).

That kind of strong wording would be welcome in Maine’s application.

In the Maine plan’s defense, though, the steps proposed here with regard to student performance and educator evaluations are simply huge by our state’s  standards. Just weeks ago, Maine Education Association president Chris Galgay told the Legislature’s Education Committee that “using student test data to evaluate a teacher is not only unfair, it is inaccurate.”  Yet here, in its RTT application, the state is proposing that we do just that.  This is, it needs to be said, a big step forward for the state.

In fact, what the state lays out in this section of the application it is not a bad plan, overall. There are few real details, but unlike some other detail-lacking sections of the application, the state actually does describe in this section how and when the various details of the plan will eventually be developed. The “operational definition and measurement of student growth,” for instance, “will be determined between September 2010 and July 2011” by a “stakeholder group” the Department writes.

Were it left to me, I would have made some different tone and phrasing choices in this section, in order to reinforce how much of a departure from the status quo this performance-based system would be. I’m left to wonder whether the language here was toned down in places in the hope that the application would gain more union support. If so, that was clearly a miscalculation. I think we can all agree that the MEA was never going to sign on to this plan, and in recognition of that fact the state might have been bolder in some of its reform proposals.

Nonetheless, it is to be the policy of the state of the Maine, if the RTT application is our guide, that the only way the state’s educators will be considered “effective” at their jobs is if they can demonstrate that students are actually learning. There is no getting around that fact that this is a huge policy shift for Maine.

Whether it is huge enough to win support in Washington remains to be seen, but the state is to be congratulated for putting the concept on the table and for committing to it.

Up next, “equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals.” Hmmmm…