With no small task at hand -- and not much time -- a dozen or so educators, advocates and academics have begun gathering regularly in the administrative offices of North Brunswick schools to come up with a way to evaluate teachers and principals across the state.
The members of Gov. Chris Christie’s Educator Effectiveness Task Force, along with state department staff, met on Wednesday for more than five hours, beginning to draft a report to submit to Christie by March 1.
The members appointed by Christie in what was a controversial selection process in itself and have each signed confidentiality agreements.
But their chairman said yesterday that the group has already begin reviewing research and talking to experts, in and out of state. Some early attention has been paid to Delaware’s evaluation system, as approved for federal Race to the Top funding, another devised for Washington D.C. schools under former superintendent Michelle Rhee, as well as several New Jersey districts’ approaches, he said.
“We’ll be meeting every 10 days, as much as possible,” said chairman Brian Zychowski, superintendent of North Brunswick schools. "We’re up against it in terms of time.
Zychowski yesterday said there is no predetermination for his group’s work, and that has been made clear in the early meetings.
"Our charge is not merit pay or changing tenure, but to come up a measure for effective teaching in the classroom," he said. "And there have been some effective practices out there in New Jersey, where districts are achieving and successful."
“We are working very hard to give this a fair and balanced discussion and not -- I know what everyone thinks -- make it political,” Zychowski said.
The committee was named by Christie last month as a first step in his efforts to devise a system that he said would remake how schools evaluate, promote and retain teachers and principals.
Teacher evaluation has become the latest hot topic in education reform, not just in New Jersey. Christie has insisted that educators be judged on the success of their students, as measured by standardized tests and other factors.
Out of the task force’s report could come changes in how, or if, the state grants tenure for teachers, Christie said, as well as the seeds for merit pay for teachers who excel and possible disciplinary steps for those who don’t.
The membership of the nine-member committee itself became the subject of intense dispute when the governor threw out an earlier plan for a vast and broad-based group of education stakeholders and instead chose a small group that included some prominent voices outside traditional public education, as well as inside.
In addition to Zychowski, the members include the leader of the state’s predominant school vouchers group, the headmaster of a Newark parochial school, and a principal of a Newark charter school. Also included are two teachers, a former Elizabeth school board president, a Lacey Township PTA president, and a Drew University associate dean.
The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s dominant teachers union and frequent target of the governor, was among those groups excluded from the committee. Yesterday its spokesman continued to voice criticism of the task force’s work.
"The problem remains that this task force has been directed by the governor to create policy with no basis in reality," said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director. "There is no research showing that basing teacher evaluations on student test scores is going to reward the best teachers."
Wollmer also added a slap at the confidentiality of the talks: “It's not surprising that they don't want anyone watching while they try to figure out how to sell such a bad idea."
The NJEA is expected to present its own proposed education reform package next week, including changes in once-sacred tenure laws.
Several of the other task force members reached over the past few days declined to discuss the work publicly and referred all questions to Zychowski.
The one member from teacher union leadership said she was pleased with the deliberations so far, and defended it being held behind closed doors.
“I have been in schools long enough and know in doing negotiations and serious talks how things can leak out before anything is decided,” said Donna Chiera, president of the Perth Amboy union and executive vice president of the state’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
Chiera said she fully expected open discussion once the report comes out and the governor makes his proposals. "This is not a forever thing."