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Education Department Extends Teacher Evaluation Pilot to as Many as 30 More Districts

New plans give the rest of the districts more time to revamp how they judge teachers

New Jersey's teacher evaluation pilot has gotten off to a mixed start, by most accounts. Now the Christie administration is tweaking its plans for next year and extending the pilot to a limited number of districts -- rather than statewide as originally planned.

In a memo distributed yesterday, acting education commissioner Chris Cerf said that up to 30 more districts would be chosen to test a teacher evaluation system that uses student performance, among other criteria, as a measure of teacher effectiveness.

Ten districts, plus a half-dozen schools in Newark, are participating in the pilot this year.

But the rules for the remaining 500-plus districts have eased some; earlier statements said that every district would implement a new evaluation system in at least one school.

Instead, each district will only have to begin building and testing an evaluation framework that breaks teachers into four categories of effectiveness, from "ineffective" to "highly effective." They will not have to implement it in a school.

Schools will also be required to set up a local advisory committee, to train teachers and administrators on the new system, and to report on their progress in January and July 2013.

Justin Barra, the education department's communications director, said yesterday that the new guidelines follow the intentions spelled out in the state's application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, but provide more details for districts.

He said the goal remains to have a teacher evaluation system in place statewide by 2013-2014.

"We're not at all slowing down, we're just providing districts more specificity," said Barra.

The new guidance comes out as the state legislature is gearing up to debate exactly how the new evaluation system will be reflected in the law and play out in teacher tenure decisions.

A prominent bill sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate Education Committee Chairman, would revamp New Jersey's century-old tenure system. Among its many provisions, it would require teachers receive three consecutive years of positive evaluations to be awarded tenure. Two substandard reviews could cost them their protection. Ruiz has said the first hearings on the bill could start this month.

Teacher union leaders learned about the new guidance yesterday, and some of their representatives were in on a late-afternoon conference call with top department officials explaining the changes.

"We're glad they've listened to those on the local committees who said this is being rushed and no way it can be done in just a year," said Rosemary Knab, an associate director with the New Jersey Education Association who was in on the call.

She said the statewide use of student test scores -- maybe the most controversial part of the plan -- remains problematic, especially with the state's data system still in development. "That's a huge piece still out there," she said.

But Knab said she was pleased that the state was willing to learn more from districts testing different methods. "This is a more responsible way to move forward on something where high-stakes decisions will be made," she said.

The five-page guidance sent districts yesterday laid out a number of new details about the existing pilot. For one, as it pledged to do, the administration will bring in an outside evaluator to monitor and study the pilot. Cerf wrote that the state will work with Rutgers University, with its first report expected at the end of the school year.

By and large, Cerf wrote that the pilot has started well. In all, more than 5,000 teachers and 250 administrators in nearly 80 schools are participating in the pilot in one form or another.

By far the largest number is in Elizabeth, with more than 2,200 teachers and 112 administrators in 30 schools. Next largest is Pemberton Township, with 600 teachers in 10 schools.

"We have already heard from a number of teachers and principals that they have been more engaged than ever before in meaningful conversations about their performance," Cerf wrote.

But he also acknowledged that the pilot has run into some rough patches, including training teachers and administrators. State officials last week said just half of the pilot districts had completed the training, initially set for a November deadline.

"We've learned that the selection of a research-based teacher practice framework, and the trainings associated with that framework require significant time," Cerf wrote.

The next round of pilot districts would be chosen similarly to the first round, with districts eligible for state funding to implement the system and train staff. Details on the application process will be made available in March.

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