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Time to Get New Jersey's Teachers Off the Clock?

Critics argue that it's time to rethink the rule that requires teachers to rack up 100 hours of professional development every five years.

The recommendation is tucked deep into the report commissioned by Gov. Chris Christie, one of nearly 50 suggestions to ease the red tape tying up public schools.

But it may be one of the more significant or provocative recommendations made by the Education Transformation Task Force: rethink New Jersey's decade-old requirement that its teachers rack up 100 hours of professional development every five years.

Headed by former state education commissioner David Hespe, the task force appointed with much fanfare by Christie earlier this year said it was time to move beyond "clock hours" in determining if teachers are getting enough professional development.

"The Department and the State Board should seek to amend this regulation to focus on student learning rather than on hours of professional seat-time," the report read. "The goal should be on driving outputs, not mandating inputs."

The report suggested more focus on teacher collaboration and support through "professional learning communities," where teachers can learn from each other on a daily basis.

Making Measurements

But making that a regulation that can be clearly measured is difficult. And the recommendation has touched off discussions within the education department and other stakeholder groups as to exactly what those measurements could look like.

"We're at a critical point where we need to rethink all these things," said Cathy Pine, the department's director of professional development.

"What is the accountability around professional development," she continued. "Quantity alone doesn't show impact and quality, and maybe it is time to look at it in a different way."

Pine and her top staff stressed in an interview yesterday that New Jersey has already moved far beyond the 100 hours as being the sole determinant of whether a teacher is progressing in his or her own skills and knowledge.

Under the regulations enacted in 2000 and just starting their third five-year cycle, the state also required that districts set up district-wide professional development plans that promoted the collaboration and learning environments that go well beyond the traditional in-service days and isolated workshops.

The state more recently extended those requirements to demand districts to establish such plans for each school, with teachers involved in their development plans and collaborating on a school's specific needs. That may include regular planning sessions between teachers, or peer coaching and modeling.

The state's program was hailed in a 2008 study that singled out three states for their high level of teacher involvement.

"It's not around the hours anymore, but district initiative and school-level planning," said Eileen Aviss-Spedding, a program manager in Pine's office. "New Jersey is being recognized nationally for its way to develop high-level professional development.

"We're seeing a turnaround in the depth and the focus of the conversations, right in the schools," she said.

Hard to Get Rid of the Hours

Still, how to ensure that this happens in every district, and for every teacher in every school is the difficult part. Each district is required to submit its plans to the state's county offices, which in turn approve them. But ensuring every teacher is included is left to the districts -- and the 100-hour rule.

After the first five-year cycle in 2006, all but 160 teachers statewide had met the requirement. In the latest cycle, ending last year, state officials didn't have a precise number available, but estimated that 98.5 percent of teachers met the requirement at last count.

"Many, many districts are at 100 percent, and many teachers well above the 100 hours, even to 200 or 300," said Victoria Duff, one of the initial authors of the law and now the state's coordinator of teacher effectiveness. "It's not about the hours, but the kind of learning they are doing."

Added Pine: "There are programs these 100 hours have supported that have been good things for the state. If that is taken away, how do we restructure policy so that doesn't backslide?"

That is the discussion that Hespe said he hopes the report will spark. Now chief of staff to acting education commissioner Chris Cerf, Hespe said yesterday that upcoming public hearings on the task force report will delve into not only the recommendations but also the possible alternatives. Changing the rule would not require legislation, but still involves a long process through the State Board of Education for amending administrative code.

A great deal will also revolve around the state's separate pilot project to test a statewide teacher evaluation system that would incorporate specific interventions and support for those teachers who fall short, he said.

"We are all saying the same thing," Hespe said yesterday. "We all believe that professional development is very important and best put forward when it focuses on student outcomes and not just inputs like clock hours."

Hespe was the state commissioner when the 100-hours rule was enacted as regulation, after much debate that is similar to that today, and he said yesterday that he knew then that this day was coming.

"The idea was we'd always come back and look at where we were moving in terms of performance," he said. "I think it was probably time to review it anyway, and the task force has provided that venue."

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