Maryland Department of Education: Race to the Top

The Issue

Maryland’s public schools are ranked number one in the country for overall policies and performance (Education Week’s Quality Counts survey) and for Advanced Placement participation and performance (the College Board). It has had consistent state leadership for 18 years at its State Department of Education, and school districts are generally well-financed thanks to landmark school reform legislation. But Maryland, like all other states, has racial achievement and access gaps and has struggled to place highly effective teachers in the lowest-performing schools. The U.S. Education Department’s Race to the Top competition was seen as a way both to tackle these pressing issues and to unify the state’s 24 districts on a coherent reform agenda.

What We Did

Education First has deep experience assisting other states with their Race to the Top applications – Hawaii and Tennessee – and began its engagement with the Maryland State Department of Education in February 2010. Maryland had been working on its Round 2 application for a few months and already had established working teams to guide the application’s development. EFC began working intensely with these teams – reviewing drafts, generating policy ideas, strategizing on new approaches, and offering advice on political and policy issues. EFC participated in weekly planning sessions and helped author sections of the application according to Maryland’s needs. During the application process, Race to the Top finalists and winners were announced, so EFC produced a number of national analyses and state-by-state comparisons (down to individual application sub-criteria) that showed Maryland how its competition stacked up. These documents helped push the state’s agenda and enabled the Maryland writing team to think bigger. In April, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Education Reform Act of 2010, which, among other things, cleared the way for student growth to be a “significant” factor in educator evaluations and permitted local districts to award bonuses to educators who choose to teach in low-performing schools. EFC also facilitated a half-day review of the state’s first draft by national experts who provided comments and feedback. In addition, EFC presented updates on the application with Maryland staff at State Board of Education meetings. In August 2010, when Maryland was announced as one of the 19 Round 2 finalists, EFC helped prepare and coach Governor Martin O’Malley and the rest of the Maryland “pitch team” for its interview with the U.S. Department of Education.

The Outcome

On August 24, Maryland was announced as one of 10 winners of Race to the Top’s Round 2 competition. The second round of competition was stiff, with 36 states and the District of Columbia reapplying, including all of the Round 1 finalists. Maryland was awarded $250 million to carry out its reform plan.

Why It Matters

Maryland’s application is both bold and consistent with the state’s track record, political context, and policy agenda. EFC helped make all three linkages in the application and pushed the state to think in different ways about key issues such as teacher/principal evaluations and a re-engineered human capital effort. Knowing that the section on great teachers/leaders carried the most points in the application, EFC assisted Maryland with designing a broad teacher evaluation framework and with translating the state’s recently passed Education Reform Act into proposals for the application. Maryland has just 24 districts – small enough to make reform possible, and large and diverse enough to make a difference. Its track record of performance, as well as its commitment to improve achievement for all, makes it a state to watch.