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Newark's First Foray into Teacher Evaluation Pilot, with Teachers Front and Center

In first stage, superintendent begins to discuss details, build bridges to staff and community.

By the district’s last available count, only about 1 percent of Newark’s teachers – or 32 of them -- got unsatisfactory evaluations in 2009-2010, while better than 90 percent were deemed proficient or distinguished.

For a district where a good third or more of students struggle to compute or read on grade level, that’s tough math for Newark school superintendent Cami Anderson and her staff to reconcile.

Last night, in an effort aimed at both standing firm on raising teacher quality and making educators part of that process, Anderson launched the first public stage in her plans for overhauling the district’s teacher evaluation system and convened an advisory group of teachers, administrators, and others to hear the first outlines of the strategy.

The outline was a mix of patience and practice, including further details on the basic components of how teachers would be observed in their classrooms, but also an extended timeline and a pledge to include staff and community all along the way.

For the rest of this school year, for instance, there will be monthly workshops for teachers and their evaluators to practice with the new tool that measures different classroom skills and a new computerized data-entry system to keep track of progress.

“Testing things out in a low-stakes environment is critical,” Anderson said. “This is not fake. We must have meaningful engagement from those who do the hard work.”

Newark is one of 11 districts in the state piloting a controversial plan led by Gov. Chris Christie that would more closely tie teacher evaluation -- and potentially tenure -- to student achievement.

And while plenty of controversy remains, several in the group last night said they appreciated at least being included in the process, no small thing in a state-operated district that has not always held such trust between teachers and administration.

One vote of appreciation, if not full confidence, came from the union leaders that up until then had been lukewarm and even hostile to the plans.

“You seem to be more open and willing to different stakeholders,” said Cheryl Skeete, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers NJ, the umbrella organization for the Newark Teachers Union.

“It seems more well-rounded than earlier when we were told it was only one way,” she told Anderson’s staff. “That should help in getting more buy-in.”

That should mean something. The NTU has openly opposed the pilot as it stood up till now, surely contributing to the fact that not one of the district’s 80-plus schools voted to join the pilot in its first year. That left just seven schools included, all of them as a condition of large federal grants.

But Anderson and her staff did not appear much discouraged by the tepid response so far, saying the seven schools should prove an ample laboratory for trying different approaches.

Much of the next six months, they said, would focus on improving classroom observations and feedback to teachers, while the data component tying teachers to student outcomes would only start to be tested next year.

“We’re taking a deep dive on practice,” said Tracy Breslin, a senior advisor to Anderson for talent management. “We will look at how people are using it and how they are using it well. Frankly, that’s plenty to do in one year.”

Members of the group said that support and feedback from the observations -- as opposed to punishments -- is a critical first step.

“A gotcha tool won’t work,” said Dennis Argul, a master teacher of more than 30 years in the district’s visual and performing arts department. “That doesn’t work for children and it doesn’t work for adults.”

And the fact that the district would be taking its time surely helped ease some of the tension.

“The district is taking a reasonable approach,” said Leonard Pugliese, president of the City Association of Supervisors and Supervisors (CASA), the principal’s union. “The initial thought was to have it in place this year and many of us knew that was unrealistic. They are slowing it down a little.”

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