Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Montgomery County Board of Education Response- Karen Smith- District 3

While some candidates have referred me to previously published questions, Karen Smith is the first candidate to answer the difficult questions I posed to the candidates running for the Board of Education three days ago.  Kudos for her bravery- especially so in tackling the question about Michelle Rhee.    And thank you.   Her responses and website: http://www.karensmith4boe.org/

1. What would you consider the biggest weakness of the current teacher evaluation system in Montgomery County? What should be done to address this weakness?

Overall, I think that the Peer-Assisted Review (PAR) system used within MCPS is pretty good, less cumbersome, more fair, and more substantive than most. Both principals and teachers themselves can call for a PAR review out of cycle (i.e., not just in preparation for a tenure decision or during a periodic review). More principals should avail themselves of this option to help struggling teachers, as it is my understanding that the resources brought to bear in the PAR review process can really turn a teacher around (or help someone to realize that teaching may not be for them).

The biggest weakness of this system is that there is no mechanism by which parents can trigger a review of a teacher’s performance. Year after year, parents pass down the information to each other about which teachers are strong, which are better with girls than boys (or vice-versa), and which teachers are to be avoided at all costs. Why not figure out a system to make intelligent use of this feedback?

There should be a way for thoughtful parental critique to trigger a PAR review out of cycle. It’s possible that such feedback, as an institutionalized practice, could help teachers improve even outside a formal PAR process.

2. Pay for MCPS teachers is currently decided by a seniority system. If consensus could be reached on a new evaluation system, would you support a merit based pay scale to reward the highest performing teachers?

Yes, though what constitutes “highest performing” would need to be carefully thought out. The data I have seen supports the idea that while a teacher’s effectiveness can be difficult to predict or define, it does not correlate very well to years of experience (though all teachers appear to improve most sharply during the first 3 years – hence MCPS’ decision to provide more PAR supports to all new teachers in the first 3 years makes a great deal of sense).

I am a supporter of a “value-added” evaluation system, which takes into account the initial academic preparedness of each student (relatively easy to measure), the degree of academic support available to each student in the home (reasonably easy to gauge in practice), and any unusual abilities and/or disabilities which would tend to accelerate or slow down the pace of learning for each individual student (more difficult and somewhat controversial to ascertain). None of these three factors are "excuses" for a systemic failure to educate, which is why it is important to remember that no single "fix" is going to get us to where we all want to go - it is important to pair changes in teacher evaluation systems with changes to the support systems for catching students up, supporting learning more fully at school, and improving education geared towards learning disabilities and hyper-abilities.

That said, the appeal of a value-added accountability system is that it gets more to the heart of what it is a teacher actually does than simple grade-by-grade testing against a somewhat arbitrary standard. An accountability system should not reward one teacher for having had the good luck to have 3 kindergartners walk in reading at a 2nd grade level, any more than it should punish a different teacher for having had 3 (untreated) dyslexics walk in to the 5th grade reading at that same 2nd grade level (and yes, Virginia, there are scientifically proven “treatments” for dyslexia, we just haven’t been using them as often or as well as we might). Also, decisions affecting a teacher’s employment should only be made on the basis of several year’s worth of data (a Center for American Progress paper addressing this issue recommended a minimum of 3 years (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2009/12/value_added.html)).
These are difficult and complex matters, but I believe that working out a sensible solution along these lines is the direction in which we should be moving. Not coincidentally, The Race to the Top funding secured by the state of Maryland pushes us in this same direction.

3. What are your reflections on Michelle Rhee? Should the search committee consider interviewing her for the Superintendent position?

I wouldn’t discount her out of hand, though her reputation for high-handed, non-collaborative decision-making would need to be carefully examined. I would want to find out the extent to which this reputation is actually deserved. It may well be that this reputation derives more from Rhee’s common-sense notion that DCPS is not a jobs program for the District of Columbia, but should instead be about the business of educating DC’s children. Montgomery County is a very different place from DC, and MCPS is a vastly different (and dramatically more functional) bureaucracy from DCPS, and I think we would need to look carefully at how Rhee's skills would translate into this very different setting.

I believe that the search committee should be looking for an effective, collaborative, decisive reformer, not one who looks to run things in secret or behind closed doors. Whether Rhee would turn out to be collaborative and transparent in Montgomery County is an open question.


  1. To the candidates for the Montgomery County Board of Education:

    This email is on behalf of a number of King Farm Citizens that are concerned about potential redistricting of school boundaries as a method to deal with the overcrowding problem within the Richard Montgomery (RM) school cluster. For many of us in the King Farm community, a very large driving factor for purchasing our homes in King Farm is to be in the Richard Montgomery School cluster, so this issue and clearly understanding each of your positions is a very important factor in our decision as we head to the voting polls next Tuesday.

    We would like to know each of your positions on redistricting and if this is something you would support for our community to deal with overcrowding problem in the RM cluster. We request that you each respond specifically to this question, as well your positions on the below topics, by Sunday, October 31. As a community, we hope to have better understanding of each of your positions on the overcrowding issues impacting our schools as we prepare to head to the polls next Tuesday.
    rezoning of the RM cluster
    managing overcrowding in the short term (including ensuring safe and adequate spaces, appropriate staffing and productive learning environments for children in overcrowded schools)
    schools expansion

    Thank you in advance for any clarification you might provide regarding your experience with these issues and efforts you have or plan to make to advance the interests of our community's children. We will be sharing each of your responses within our community.

    Christina Chai on behalf of the King Farm residents copied on this email

    This is the response from Patricia O'Neil:

    I believe in making informed decisions. Informed decisions include community input. The Board of Education process will include community input on Nov. 10 and 11 through a public hearing. I encourage you to testify. The Board will discuss the proposal with the Superintendent and his staff on Nov.4. It is inappropriate and irresponsible to state a position at this time without all of the necessary information, including community input.
    Pat O'Neill

  2. what is your position on magnet schools?