It took a little courage and some said a leap of faith, but 31 New Jersey school districts have signed up to be part of the Christie administration's pilot program for testing a statewide teacher evaluation system.
All of the models being assessed by the pilot must rely on student test scores and other achievement measures for up to half a teacher's grade, from "ineffective" to "highly effective." But with a few options to pick from, the state wants to evaluate them first in a mix of locales.
The state Department of Education has a couple of weeks to decide the nine districts it will award a total of $1.1 million in grants for trying out various models, starting in the fall. The deadline for applying was last Thursday.
The administration’s plan is to take the lessons learned from the pilots and translate them into a statewide system in 2012-2013, in which teacher promotions and retentions -- and maybe eventually pay -- will depend on their evaluations.
"This pilot is an opportunity to partner with our teachers and to learn how an evaluation system can help them to constantly improve year after year," said Justin Barra, the state Department of Education’s chief spokesman.
"We are excited to see so many applicants from all corners of the state, which shows us that there is real interest from educators in improving teacher practice to help our students succeed," he said.
The list of applicants was decidedly varied, and included large urban districts like Elizabeth and Camden, suburban ones such as Fort Lee and Cherry Hill, and two charter schools, one north and one south.
NJ Spotlight spoke with three of the pilot program applicants, each with its own evaluation system in place and its own reasons for wanting to jump into the fray for what may be the most controversial issue in schools today: how to judge a good teacher.
In a district where a vast majority of students pass the state's tests, Cherry Hill hardly seems the place for revamping how it judges its 1,100 teachers. For the past seven years, the district has used an evaluation system devised by Princeton-area expert Charlotte Danielson.
"We think it works well for us," said Maureen Reusche, the district superintendent. "The amount of time we have had it in place speaks to that."
But Reusche said she also could see the writing on the wall, with an administration moving to a more standardized model in the next year -- one that could include parts of Danielson's method.
"This would be an opportunity to be on the ground floor," she said. "And I would hope they are sincere and that participation will give us a voice."
The test will be in how to incorporate student achievement into what the district is doing already. Cherry Hill's current system does not directly link evaluations to student scores, but Reusche said student performance is infused in the process.
"It's throughout the evaluation in how we looking at student learning, student engagement, the whole instructional program," she said.
But now it will need to be more explicit as a defined factor in the evaluations. And that's not the only difference, since the pilot will also require a change in the number of observations each year and will impose a strict process for evaluation conferences.
Given all that, the district opted to include only four of its 19 schools in this round, two elementary, a middle school and the alternative high school. "We actually had several principals expressing interest," the superintendent said, "but we wanted to limit because we wanted to be sure we had the capacity."
And even in those four, there is no full teacher buy-in. But while a formal agreement was not required, Reusche said the teachers union at least informally agreed to proceed.
She still has lots of questions, but Reusche called it a "great opportunity."
"What would make me nervous is if this was a mandated process forced on all of our 19 schools right away," she said. "Instead, this is a way to test the waters and have input along the way."
Opened in 1997, Galloway Community Charter School is among New Jersey’s first group of these alternative schools. Still, it remains a pretty small one, just 202 students enrolled for next year, with 23 teachers in front of them.
The school's leaders have constantly tweaked and prodded their programs along the way, including the school's teacher evaluation system.
"In our 13 years, we have probably revised it five times," said Deborah Nataloni, the school’s director.
The most recent was last year, when it adopted a model developed by James Stronge, an education professor at College of William and Mary. In addition to the traditional 40-minute classroom observations, supervisors also do a daily three-minute "walk-through" of every classroom to get a less formal look.
But then came the state’s pilot, which includes the Stronge model as one of its options. And the DOE was offering some help -- and money -- to better train teachers and to provide technology for tracking student and teacher progress. And it would help stock the system with real achievement data.
"That was the piece that we weren’t able to tie in," Nataloni said. "That is what baffled us."
Nataloni said it helps that she leads a charter, and one without a teachers union. "We’re accustomed to flexibility," she said.
But the director also said she has questions of her own. How will art teachers be evaluated on achievement measures that are not as clearly delimited as those for math and language arts? Will all teachers be treated fairly?
"We know this is controversial going in," Nataloni said. “And if there are issues of equity, this is the way to find out."
Instead of the notebook or clipboard of the past, the administrators in Red Bank Borough will be walking their two schools with iPads next fall.
Part of a system developed by Teachscape, the computerized program will allow supervisors to input data about a teacher’s performance during classroom visits into a centralized system that they can revisit with a teacher to help him or her improve.
"We have already done the training. It is something we will be doing with or without the grant," said Laura Morana, Red Bank’s superintendent. "But obviously the grant will help."
The superintendent said the grant opportunity came as Red Bank last year began to revamp how it evaluates its 80 teachers on its own, recognizing the political changes, but also the need to better integrate hard data into the reviews.
Morana said the district typically decides against reappointing 5 percent to 10 percent of its teachers each year based on performance, but she said it can always improve in its evaluations for not just the sake of teachers it doesn’t want to keep but also those it does.
"And the data has to be a top priority in what determining what works and what doesn’t," she said.
The grant would further assist in training both teachers and administrators, Morana said. And at least for now, she downplayed any controversy in including test scores as part of the mix, saying it is tricky but so far the teachers union has acquiesced.
That’s not necessarily the case with all districts. Leaders of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) said districts followed different paths, some involving teachers in the application process, some leaving them out altogether.
But Morana said teachers need to be involved, and she looked forward to learning from the experience should Red Bank win.
"Ultimately our goal in the evaluation is to support growth and provide assistance and reflection," she said. "And there will be times when we can celebrate their achievement and others where we need to make some tough decisions."