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Pilot Teacher Evaluation System Slow to Gain Traction in Newark

Superintendent Anderson "disappointed" in teachers union, moving ahead in half-dozen schools.

Credit: Annie Knox/NJ Spotlight

In New Jersey's highest-profile school district, plans to test one of Gov. Chris Christie's highest-profile reform initiatives have gotten off to a bumpy start with the teachers union.

Still, a half-dozen district schools will test a new teacher evaluation system.

Superintendent Cami Anderson plans to formally launch the pilot in the next week, naming a team to oversee the development of the system. She said there would be a heavy emphasis in the beginning on setting clear goals and feedback for teachers.

Anderson said she hoped to put the pilot in place in as many schools as possible, but after what she described as extensive outreach to teachers and the Newark Teachers Union, she was unable to win any buy-in votes.

Instead, she will start in just seven schools receiving federal School Improvement Grants (SIGs), with the pilot being a condition of the grants. The schools were chosen from among the state's lowest performing.

"The more people who weigh in, the more likely it will be successful," she said yesterday. "That was the spirit, to get more involved."

But Anderson put some of the blame on the NTU for a lack of wider involvement. "It is absolutely clear to me they played in a role in that, and that's disappointing," she said. "I believe their members want to be part of this."

Newark is one of 11 districts that are conducting a pilot of a new statewide teacher evaluation system that ultimately could be used for determining teachers' tenure and perhaps even pay.

The system has been the centerpiece of Christie's moves to revamp teacher tenure and tie it more closely to student performance. Newark's involvement would have been especially notable not just as the state's largest district but also due to its headline-grabbing $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Part of that money will go toward the pilot's development.

But even in other pilot districts, union support has been a delicate balance, albeit so far mostly cooperative. That is particularly noteworthy since the teachers in all the other districts are represented by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the statewide teachers union that has been in frequent combat with Christie.

"The main feedback we are hearing from teachers is that there is still a lot of work to do but they appreciate being at the table," said Justin Barra, the state Department of Education's communications director.

The Newark Teachers Union is part of the American Federation of Teachers and had appeared more receptive to the effort. But its leadership said it balked after its members' expressed reluctance over some of the details in the plan.

"In our discussions, a few of our building representatives asked if we would accept a resolution not in favor of the pilot in its current form," said Joseph Del Grosso, the union's long-time president. "It passed unanimously."

But he denied any formal campaign against the proposal in individual schools or among his members.

"We just said we want other things in it," Del Grosso said, pointing specifically to the union's push for a greater role for teachers' peers in their evaluations.

Anderson maintained the pilot would include extensive feedback from peer teachers. "It's all about how do we get teachers great feedback, but that is not just limited to peers," she said.

But even those details are still to be developed, Anderson said, part of a process that will take place early in the year and start to be tested in different schools in the spring. The more controversial use of student test scores in gauging teacher performance likely will not come until the next school year. The district is currently conducting its own review of its student and teacher data, including through an audit by KPMG.

"We still need to clean up our own data in Newark before we can do that, and also need that statewide comparability data that will come from the state," Anderson said.

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