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Can New Jersey’s Educators Make the Grade?

Tables turned, public schools across the Garden State are told to disclose how they evaluate faculty -- and then there’s the little issue of posting the results online.

How New Jersey public schools grade their teachers and principals is about to get a close-up, as districts will soon have to post online their evaluation plans and also how collectively their educators fare.

The state sent out a notice to districts in the past week that requested detailed information on their evaluations systems, from how many times teachers are observed to what specifically is evaluated.

But most dicey -- and raising some eyebrows -- may be the requirement that summaries of those evaluations be provided to the public online.

Categorizing Educators

For instance, if a district uses a system of evaluating teachers that puts them in categories ranging from “unsatisfactory” to “outstanding,” each school in the district will have to post the percentage of teachers that fall into each category. Individual teachers ratings would not be disclosed.

According to state officials, the new requirement comes with New Jersey’s acceptance of federal stimulus funds last year.

“The goal of the survey is to enable State officials, parents, local educators and other stakeholders to measure their state’s progress towards improving teacher effectiveness and achieving equity in the distribution of teachers and principals,” read the guidelines to districts.

That hasn’t stopped some district and school leaders from expressing worries about the demand, pointing out any number of challenges.

“I had one who refused to comply,” said Willa Spicer, the assistant state education commissioner who is overseeing the effort. “I called them back myself and told them this is all the feds. You can’t just decide not to do it.”

600 School Districts, 600 Frameworks?

Still, Spicer said it should be an interesting exercise to see what criteria schools use, something she expects will vary widely in a state of 600 school districts. The survey asks about five different frameworks for teacher evaluation, and includes a box for “other.”

And posting the results could lead to some awkward moments.

“If there is a school system where their test scores are low, but all their teachers are listed as outstanding, anybody looking at it is certainly going to have some questions,” she said.

Spicer added that the new requirements are not meant to get districts in trouble, but more to determine the various ways they grade their educators at a time when the state -- and the nation -- is rethinking the evaluation of teachers.

President Obama has pressed for the nation’s public schools to better evaluate its teachers in terms of their effectiveness in raising student achievement, making it a central point in the federal Race to the Top competition.

Moving Ahead as Planned

New Jersey narrowly lost out in the contest this week, but state officials said its plans for a statewide evaluation system using student achievement data and other information will continue. A task force of nearly 40 people is being gathered to begin that work, which is expected to take more than a year.

In the meantime, the new requirement for districts to detail their existing systems is causing some stir in the last days before schools open for a new year

Hackettstown, for instance, devised its own system over the last several years and doesn’t summarize the data as the state is requesting. Supervisors rate each teacher on five different categories, from “Preparation & Planning” to “Instruction” to “Learning environment.” In each of them, teachers are gauged “highly effective,” “effective,” “minimally effective,” and “not observed.”

“We don’t have overall scores,” said Robert Gratz, the Hackettstown superintendent. “So we’re going to have to be very judicious in how we read this. We are looking at it right now to see the best way for presenting what we are doing.”

Gratz, who heads the state superintendents association’s professional development committee, said he worries the new requirements will pigeonhole all districts into a state-dictated system and teachers into state-dictated categories.

“To have some total percent of teachers effective or not is not true to what we’re doing with this model,” he said. “It’s not about rating a teacher A, B or C, but focusing on their strengths and what they need to do to improve.”

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