Maine will apply for up to $75 million in grants from the federal Race to the Top program after all, thanks to a deadline deal reached by a stakeholders group in Augusta Wednesday.

The group — which includes representatives from the Maine Education Association, the union representing most teachers — agreed that school districts could use a teacher evaluation model that can be modified to include student performance data.

That shift satisfied Attorney General Janet Mills, who said she would sign off on the state’s application, now that all legal barriers to using student data in teacher evaluation have been removed. Stakeholders now have time to refine the model or add others to the permitted list.

Even if the state’s grant application is ultimately unsuccessful, the progress made by the panel is positive. It may not bring in the millions of federal dollars that Maine needs, but it will provide a process that will help improve the quality of teaching and learning in the state.

The use of student data in teacher evaluation has been mischaracterized throughout the debate.

It would not create merit pay for teachers, although that would be a good development. It would also not punish teachers for problems that are the responsibility of parents and families.

And no one has proposed using a single annual test that would reward one teacher for the student’s previous teacher’s work.

What is under discussion in Maine — and already in use in other states — is giving teachers feedback that would help them improve and make them more accountable for the results of their work. It is hard to imagine that any professional wouldn’t want that kind of help.

Students are constantly being assessed. Some school districts offer real-time online progress reports that keep students and parents aware of every test score and missed assignment. Clearly, educators believe that this kind of evaluation makes students perform better.

What the tests should measure is not economic or demographic advantage, but how much a student achieved compared to how much he or she would be expected to achieve. Teachers would be able to track what techniques were working with which students.

Student performance shouldn’t be the only measure of teachers. Traditional evaluative techniques, such as classroom visits, should still be part of the process. But since the whole point of education is teaching children, why wouldn’t school districts also look at the outcomes?

The teachers’ union had the ability to obstruct this process and did not do that. But it and all the other stakeholders still have a lot to do to make this type of evaluation work, whether Maine gets the grants or not.


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