COLLEGE PARK - Maryland schools are moving closer to overhauling the way that they evaluate teachers, putting more emphasis on student performance and test scores.
The new evaluation system is currently being tested in Baltimore City and six counties, and will be expanded to the rest of the state in June.
Supporters of the new system, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, said the change was necessary because Maryland did not have a statewide teacher evaluation system that took student performance into account.
Under the new system, half of a teacher's evaluation score will depend on student performance and the other half on professional development.
In the seven districts where the new evaluation models are being tested - Baltimore city and Baltimore, Charles, Kent, Prince George's, Queen Anne's and St. Mary's counties - supporters said feedback from teachers has been positive.
But teachers' unions said close monitoring of the new program will be needed as it is expanded to other counties at the end of this school year.
While each district can develop its own evaluation model, it must comply with a state law passed in 2010 that sparked a complete overhaul of the system.
Teacher evaluations are used to determine pay increases and promotions.
Right now, the state rates teachers on the basis of principal observation, professional experience and the quality of their course material.
As the changes take effect, continual review will be needed to ensure that each district develops a sound evaluation model, said Betty Weller, vice president of the Maryland State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.
"I suspect that we are going to learn more things when all 24 districts are piloted," Weller said.
Weller also co-chairs the Maryland Council for Educator Effectiveness, a panel appointed by O'Malley to guide the development of a statewide evaluation system.
Though the MCEE is scheduled to issue its final set of recommendations about the new system in June, Weller said she wants the council's oversight to continue indefinitely.
"My concern is that we don't call this a finished product this year, but that we continue to monitor and watch the new evaluation model for several years," she said.
While teachers have expressed concern over what a new evaluation system could mean for their careers, so far overall feedback has been positive, Weller said.
"When they [the teachers] hear that it's not supposed to be a 'gotcha,' I don't think 100 percent of them believe it's not a 'gotcha,' but they still feel a lot better about it," she said.
In Prince George's County, a pilot program to test a new evaluation system has been in place for the last six months. Approximately 120 teachers from schools across the county are being evaluated.
Prince George's County is using a model to assess teachers that combines student test scores with in-class observation by administrators.
The county was well prepared for the change and is working closely with local teacher unions, said Bonita Coleman Potter, deputy superintendent for Prince George's County Public Schools.
"We are about two years ahead of the curve," Bonita said. "Many in the district see this as something that will increase the capacity of teachers," she said.
Coleman, who serves on the MCEE, said school districts face a challenge in evaluating different types of teachers. That includes those who co-teach in a single classroom, teach in subjects not covered by state assessment like art or music or who teach younger students.
In 2010, the state won a competitive $250 million grant, known as Race to the Top, awarded to 11 states and the District of Columbia.
Race to the Top funds are being used to revamp the teacher evaluation system, recruit and retain qualified teachers, fix low performing schools and prepare students for college and the workplace.
"People need to understand just how ambitious these timelines are, and how massive the undertaking is," Weller said.
The large financial incentive and aggressive timeline set by Race to the Top means that a new teacher evaluation model will likely face several changes and alterations in the upcoming years, said Mary Gable, assistant state superintendent for academic policy at the Maryland Department of Education.
"At whatever point we are at with teacher and principal evaluations ... we know that this is a system that we will have to continue to review and continue to look at," she said.
Beginning in June, all local school districts will have approximately a year to develop and test their own model for evaluation on a small group of teachers. In July 2013, all teachers will be evaluated under the new model.
If a district does not create its own model, it will automatically adopt the state's framework.
But that option is not necessarily a good fit for individual counties, Weller said.
"I tell them [district leaders] that you don't want to take the state model ... it is not going to focus on the specific needs of the district," she said.
Gable said she is confident that district and union leaders will work to develop their own evaluation models.
"This cannot happen without collaboration," she said. "We've come quite a distance in the last six months, and we'll continue to work collaboratively."