(Photo by Maryland Newsline’s Alexandra Wilding)
With New Teacher Contract, Lots of Unknowns
Thursday, May 18, 2011
BALTIMORE - When it came time to vote for a new contract late last fall, Baltimore teacher Jennifer Tesno voted for it. She was optimistic about its potential to reward her for her hard work in her second grade classroom at Hampstead Hill Academy.
Now, six months after the approval of a contract that radically alters the way in which Baltimore teachers will be evaluated and paid, Tesno's optimism remains. But she has concerns about how the new contract will play out in coming years for Baltimore's educators.
"I think there's a lot of potential, it tries to invest in students and teachers," Tesno said. "It's just a matter of the follow-through."
Tesno isn't the only teacher wondering about what the changes will look like in the classroom, as the first of what will likely be other contracts signed in Maryland move to tie teacher pay to student outcomes. Starting in the 2012-2013 school year, all districts in Maryland will be required to use student performance data to evaluate teachers, following passage of a state bill last year.
While cautiously optimistic, other Baltimore teachers share concerns about just how this contract will change how they are paid and evaluated, and how well the Baltimore City Public Schools are prepared to manage the changes.
Baltimore is the first district in Maryland that plans to pay teachers based largely on their evaluations and student performance, as opposed to seniority. In previous contracts, Baltimore teachers moved up the salary scale automatically, according to continuous years served or academic credits earned beyond a bachelor's degree.
Detractors argue the new contract gives too much power to administrators, and that using student test scores to evaluate teachers may not be a fair measure in some schools, where there are large pockets of poverty and students struggling to learn English.
"Some teachers seem to get students that can move faster, can do better on tests," said Hampstead Hill Academy's Colleen Hicks, who teaches first grade and who voted against the contract. "Other teachers have groups that struggle, and you work so hard with those groups, and it may not reflect how hard we've worked and tried to get them to where they need to be," she said.
In the new contract, the earning potential of teachers is tied to student outcomes through their annual evaluations.
Supporters say the new contract holds teachers accountable, gives them more of a voice in their profession, and rewards them with better pay in the classroom.
In the new contract, some educators could earn close to $100,000 as lead teachers in their school buildings. The top salary under the old contract was $82,000, with a master's degree plus additional educational coursework.
"We are breaking new ground," said Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. "It's nice to be part of something new and be able to mold it as we go along."
The three-year contract agreed upon by the Baltimore Teachers Union went into effect retroactively at the start of the 2010-2011 school year. It didn't come without a fight. Teachers initially rejected the contract, but approved it in November after the union and the American Federation of Teachers coordinated a publicity campaign to explain it.
Starting in the 2012-2013 school year, all districts in Maryland will be required to use student performance data to evaluate teachers. A proposed half of a teacher's evaluation will be based on student data, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.
A council of educators and education experts appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley is developing a system to incorporate student achievement in teacher evaluations. The council is also determining how assessments such as standardized tests will be used to measure student performance.
The changes in Maryland are part of O'Malley's Education Reform Act of 2010, which was signed into law last year to make the state more competitive for a share of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top money. The U.S. Department of Education program rewards states that have enacted reforms on specific issues -- including how teachers are evaluated and supported in the classroom and how student data is tracked. The Race to the Top program wants to change teacher evaluation and compensation to better motivate and reward effective teachers, according to the White House.
Montgomery and Frederick counties were the only jurisdictions in Maryland that declined to sign Maryland's Race to the Top application and will not receive its funds. All districts in Maryland, however, will have to comply with statewide changes in teacher evaluations.
Last August, Maryland was awarded one of these Race to the Top grants: $250 million over four years, to revise a new state curriculum to make students more college and career ready, to build a statewide system that tracks students performance data, and to redesign teacher and principal evaluation and development models.
Similar changes in teacher's pay structures are sprouting in school districts across the country. In Washington, D.C., the teachers' union reached an agreement with the school system last year to reward "highly effective" teachers with annual bonuses.
Baltimore City was awarded the largest share of the funding within Maryland and will receive $52.7 million over four years.
English said under the new pay scale in Baltimore, teachers who want to focus on becoming expert educators can remain in the classroom and earn a salary on par with administrators.
Instead of moving up the pay scale in "steps" every year automatically, teachers will now move largely according to their evaluations. The better an evaluation, the higher and faster teachers can move up the career ladder by earning "achievement units."
Teachers can also increase their earning potential by participating in professional development that is proven to increase student learning, as well as college courses.
In Baltimore, a committee selected by the school board and the teacher's union is developing the scope and objective of the new program, working to ensure the reliability of evaluations by principals, and establishing a peer review program for teachers to evaluate one another.
This committee has a deadline of June 30 to report that the district has the capacity to operate the new program, according to contract.
Some teachers like the contract because they say it will keep ineffective teachers from earning salary increases.
"It rewards teachers for classroom work as opposed to seniority," said Matt Robinson, a second-year Spanish teacher at Heritage High School.
Robinson said that he has all the biases of a young teacher, such as wanting a shake-up in the system and for there to be more teacher accountability.
But Robinson isn't so sure the system can handle all the changes.
"I voted for change for the sake of change, and I'm waiting to see if it pays off," he said.
Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, called Baltimore's contract is a "great step forward." She said the previous system "really is not an adequate system to allow for any career development that's meaningful, or to identify teachers that are making special contributions to student learning."
She added that Baltimore's undertaking is complex and will require a lot of training for principals who will be providing the evaluations that will determine the largest part of a teacher's potential salary increase.
The state is developing a new evaluation tool that will factor student growth into teacher evaluations. While the logistics of the state's new evaluation system are worked out, Baltimore teachers will continue to be evaluated using a system that rates teachers as unsatisfactory, satisfactory, or proficient following a classroom observation. Evaluators also consider teachers' planning, classroom environment, professional responsibilities, and instruction.
Previously, these evaluations didn't factor into pay, but having a satisfactory or proficient evaluation under the new contract will now move teachers up the pay scale.
Next year, Baltimore will pilot a new evaluation tool that is in development by the Maryland Council for Educator Effectiveness, a group of educators and education officials. But it won't be until at least the third year of the Baltimore teacher's contract that student performance will be a factor in the evaluation.
Some Baltimore teachers are concerned about consistency with principal evaluations.
Anitra Washington, a science teacher at Western High School, worries about situations where administrators are stretched thin, and classroom visits are rare.
"Sometimes there is a disconnect between the evaluator and those being evaluated," Washington said.
It might be hard for some teachers to receive a fair evaluation if they have had disagreements with administrators, or referred a high amount of students for disciplinary action, Washington said.
But she does believe that most principals are interested in what their teachers do in the classroom and are looking for a better tool in which to evaluate them.
"We have lots of very good teachers in the city … but it is about working out all the pieces of all the tools with as much clarity and research as possible," Washington said.
Teachers aren't the only ones with concerns. Some parents are also unsure of how the new contract will change classroom instruction.
Tanesha Mitchell, the parent of a Hampstead Hill Academy third grader, had concerns about the new contract because she didn't want creativity to be lost in the classroom.
"When there's extra pressure put on, the creativity goes away," Mitchell said. "With the contract, some teachers feel the pressure to perform by getting test scores up to the point to where their creativity goes on the back burner."
"We're trying to come up with ways to use student growth to measure teacher effectiveness, and that's not been done before," said Betty Weller, co-chair of the Maryland Council for Educator Effectiveness and Vice President of the Maryland State Education Association.
State tests such as the Maryland School Assessment weren't created to measure teacher effectiveness, Weller said.
"My personal concern is that there are a lot of variables in terms of growth that teachers don't have control over, and we don't want to develop a system that isn't fair to teachers," she said.
Variables include such things as a student not entering the classroom on grade level, lack of access to healthy foods, or random trauma such as losing a loved one, Weller said.
Back in her classroom in Baltimore, Jennifer Tesno has hopes for the contract that she voted to approve. But one big concern remains.
"What are the checks and balances so that we don't get hurt by the contract that's supposed to help us?" Tesno said.