Those of us who care about meaningful schooling and have become impatient with current trends in so-called education reform are increasingly finding a thoughtful and articulate ally in Michael Winerip, the author of the Times' On Education column that appears every Monday. As the work week begins, Winerip can be counted on to single out a school or a reform or a practice that he thinks merits analysis and that he ties skillfully to the larger educational policy landscape. Unfriendly to No Child Left Behind and inclined to support teachers' unions, Winerip also tries to avoid offering up easy answers or relying on predictable harangues.
In today's Times, he writes about PAR - Peer Assistance and Review - a program for developing struggling teachers that has proved quite successful in Montgomery County, Maryland over the last 11 years. PAR is staffed by hundreds of highly skilled instructors whose job it is to work with teachers regarded as low performers - whether young or seasoned - and to take responsibility for mentoring them toward greater effectiveness. A key part of the PAR Program are the 16 educators - 8 teachers and 8 administrators - who comprise the PAR panel. The panel reviews the documentation provided by the struggling teachers and their mentors and decides whether they should be retained or let go. According to Winerip, this program has led to the firing of 200 teachers and the decision on the part of some 300 others to resign rather than undergo the PAR review process. It has taken time and effort to make this program work and a tremendous level of trust had to be built up to make it sustainable, but it now enjoys nearly universal praise from teachers, administrators, and union leaders.
Despite this success, however, Montgomery County and its PAR Program are not eligible for the Education Department's Race to the Top Funds because there is no provision in PAR for assessing teaching effectiveness based on the state test results of students in classes taught by the teachers being evaluated. Such a provision is a hard and fast requirement to secure federal monies. Superintendent of Montgomery County Schools, Jerry D. Weast, resists this demand and says that they will be turning down the money as long as this requirement stands. "We don't believe the tests are reliable," Dr. Weast observes, and then adds, "You don't want to turn your system into a test factory."
The upshot, as Mr. Winerip so brilliantly points out, is that Montgomery County is ineligible for federal funds despite an 11-year program that has shown itself to be a clear winner. Whereas the State of Maryland as a whole, not counting Montgomery County, IS eligible for this money even though its own plan, evaluating teachers for how their students do on state tests, does not even exist yet!
Is this what the world of education reform has turned into? Can it be accurately summarized as a world where you get something for nothing and virtually zilch for doing something really quite remarkable? Probably not. Sounds like too easy an answer or too predictable a harangue. But that must be the way it looks these days in Montgomery County.