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NJ Launches Evaluation Pilot for School Principals

John Mooney | April 20, 2012

With teachers already testing new system, districts invited to process for grading principals.

A year into New Jersey’s teacher evaluation pilot, the Christie administration is moving on to the next job to go under the microscope: the school principal.

The state Department of Education yesterday asked for districts to step forward and apply to be part of a pilot program to test new systems for judging the effectiveness of the state’s 2,500 principals, starting next year.

Some of it will be similar to the pilot for teacher evaluation now in place in 11 districts and expanding into 30 districts next year.

Like the teacher pilot, up to 50 percent of a principal’s grade will be test scores and other measures of student performance, a topic no less controversial for principals than it is for teachers.

There will be on-site observations as well, and different evaluation models to follow in determining a principal’s effectiveness. Like teachers, principals will fall into one of four tiers: “ineffective,” “partially effective,” “effective,” and “highly effective.”

While not part of the pilot, these ratings could end up determining whether a principal gains and keeps tenure protections, at least that is the expectation if tenure reform legislation now under consideration ever passes.

But taking a lesson from the teacher’s pilot that was extended into next year, the department appears to be going out of its way to be deliberate in its timeline for principals.

While the plan remains to take the teacher evaluation statewide in 2013-14, the administration said it is not yet setting a date to take the principal piece into every school and district.

“We’ll be evaluating it in the first year, and see what it will take to go statewide,” said Justin Barra, communications director for the education department. “Our goal very much is learning and not necessarily getting it right on the first try.”

The plans for developing a statewide principal evaluation system are not new, first announced last year and further detailed in the state’s successful application for federal Race to the Top funding. The state will provide $500,000 million in funding to the pilot districts, likely to be about 10 in all, from the $38 million it received in Race to the Top funds.

Some questions arose to whether the state should have started with the principal pilot before the teacher one, given it is the principals who will be doing most of the teacher evaluations. That was the approach taken in Colorado, for instance, a state that has been a model for New Jersey’s reforms.

Nonetheless, the Christie administration went at teachers first, and now has joined the principals to the same process, albeit with adjustments. All agree, in whatever order, that it is a critical piece to the puzzle of how to improve school performance.

“We must provide our principals with the same type of meaningful feedback and data on their performance that we are now beginning to provide to teachers if we are serious in our mission to continue to improve student outcomes,” said acting education commissioner Chris Cerf in announcing the pilot.

Yesterday, principals’ advocates and others familiar with the pilot plan said it appears to follow the recommendations from the field in several regards, including the use of multiple measures of student performance and not just test scores.

Still, how exactly those different measures will be determined remains a big question for both teachers and principals.

For a majority of teachers -- those in subjects and grades that don’t take the state tests -- there are no state test scores for their students, and they will be required to develop a variety of assessments and other measures. Student scores on those yet-to-be-developed measures will now go into a principal’s evaluation as well, leaving them no more at ease.

“We are eager to see how those metrics will work and what they will look like,” said Jay Doolan, director of professional services for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. “Until we see that, I think people will be a bit on edge.”

Still, Doolan said the department followed closely the association’s recommendations.

“Better evaluation on the national and state level is necessary,” said Doolan, himself a former assistant commissioner in the department. “And certainly an evaluation system that focuses on the important things we all agree upon can only help improve learning for all kids.”

The question arises to exactly how principals are being evaluated now, and there appears little consensus. There are national standards that have been adopted by the state, developed through what is known as the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLCC), that helps drive requirements for leadership training.

But districts often develop their own measures for their principals, some more sophisticated than others. Doolan described many districts that use checklists that mark off different requirements.

North Brunswick Superintendent Brian Zychowski, chairman of a state task force last year that developed much of the state’s framework for both the teacher pilot and now the principal pilot, said administrators look at a range of factors in evaluating their principals.

They may include school climate, community relations, and personnel leadership. Most evaluations include a goal-setting process and some judgment on how or if those goals were met, he said. Test scores certainly matter, as schools as a whole get labeled and sometimes sanctioned for scores that don’t improve.

“There are people working with lots of their own instruments,” Zychowski said. “But certainly there is no consistency across the state.”

“I’m very happy to see this,” he said. “It’s overdue and a positive step in evaluation.”

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