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Lawmakers Tackle Common Core Concerns

U.S. Census Bureau

  The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee took up several bills yesterday aimed at fine-tuning the big changes happening in Maryland’s schools. Between Common Core, the Education Reform Act and Race to the Top, the last few years have set Maryland schools up for seismic shifts in the standards teachers teach to, the way teachers are evaluated, and the high-stakes standardized tests students take.

  “I often refer to this movement of education reform as a tsunami, not a wave,” says Betty Weller, president of The Maryland State Educators Association, a union that represents about 71,000 teachers across the state.

Weller says teachers are working hard – some say they’re working as much as 20 extra hours every week in order to make sure their classrooms are meeting the new and very different Common Core Standards.  “It’s sort of like turning the Titanic. It’s a huge endeavor and it takes time to do it, and we not only want to do it, we want to do it right.”

The entirely new and different standardized tests in math and English rolling out next year, Weller says, plus the possibility that teacher’s jobs will depend in part on how well students do on those tests has left many teachers overwhelmed.

“What we’re hearing from our members is that they need more time, they need some flexibility, they need resources and they need professional development,” Weller says.

State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Lillian Lowery, head of the state’s department of education, says she’s heard the same concerns, and is moving to make things easier for teachers. For one, she says, student test scores won’t be part of teacher evaluations next year. She says the department is working with the U.S. Department of Education to extend that for a couple more years.

“We want teachers focused on the implementation of these new standards and not focused on as we go through this transition what does it mean for me professionally,” Lowery said.

But Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua Starr says it’ll take longer than that before the kinks are worked out and the information from the test is valuable.

“We don’t know what the data are going to look like yet,” Starr said. “We know that it’s going to take a couple years to shake out before we have a stable data set. It is simply unfair to rush to use this data in individual teacher evaluations before the data are stable.”

Starr says that three to five years of stable data would be necessary to draw any conclusions about teacher performance.

Sen. Roy Dyson, vice chair of the committee, noted unless the federal department of education gives permission to further delay using the test data, the state risks losing some $280 million in funding.

“Every dollar in education is precious,” Dyson said. “It really is. And I think that we want to come to terms and we want to work something out so we don’t lose those federal funds or put our teachers in jeopardy.”

Two other bills take up the question of who should write the evaluations and aim to make it clear that school districts have autonomy to set those standards.

Sen. Ed Reilly, who also sits on the committee wants even more autonomy for local districts. He wants them to be able to set their own timeline for implementing common core.

“We need to take a little extra time for the parents, the teachers, the administrators to catch up,” Reilly said.

Another bill Reilly sponsored would put off the new standardized tests for another year. “We need to allow all these processes to catch up before we test and evaluate."

Neither the Maryland Department of Education nor the teacher’s union back Reilly’s bills -- both say it’s too late in the game to change the implementation deadlines.

Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.