As New Jersey schools begin to rethink how they evaluate their teachers, districts are also getting a getting a crash course in assessing an equally important group of employees: school principals.
Fourteen districts have been chosen to participate in a trial run of a principal evaluation system that the state hopes to put in place next fall.
At the same time, New Jersey's remaining 500-plus districts are being asked to choose the system they will use next year to evaluate their principals.
The effort involved in this task has led to some concern among school leaders, who are already revamping their teacher evaluation systems under the state’s new tenure law. And those jobs don't include preparing for new testing and curriculum in the coming years as well.
Brian Zychowski, the superintendent of North Brunswick schools, supports the state’s general direction and headed a state task force last year that recommended many of the changes for evaluating both teachers and administrators.
But with six schools and more than 6,000 students, Zychowski ponders the wisdom of putting both systems in place next year. Nor does he hide some worry that it’s too much.
“The big question is the four-letter word: 'time',” he said this week.
“If principals are doing three times as many evaluations [of teachers], and working with data like never before, and doing pre- and post-conferences around their evaluations, you just wonder if the hours are humanly possible,” he said.
He's not the only one who entertains some doubts. School leaders are scrambling to have school and district committees in place for the new teacher evaluation system, while also choosing a principal evaluation model -- all by a new deadline of December 31.
The deadline came courtesy of the new tenure law approved and enacted this summer, which requires all evaluation systems be ready by 2013-2014.
The state’s principals and supervisors association has planned a series of sessions in the coming month to inform districts about the different evaluation models. The first session for next week has filled up, and a second session in November is seeing quick registrations as well.
“At some point, we’ll have to cut it off,” said Jay Doolan, director of the association’s professional services at its Foundation for Educational Administration (FEA).
He said it’s a daunting task for administrators who need to learn new evaluation systems for teachers as well as for themselves.
“The ones seeing a major change in the evaluation of teachers will also be judged by the central office,” he said. “That’s been a major issue for our members.”
State officials are aware of the concerns, and they have repeatedly said they will assist districts as much as they can. They also said they're not alone in facing tight deadlines.
“We are all beholden to the new law,” said Peter Shulman, the assistant education commissioner overseeing the new systems.
Still, Shulman and other officials stressed that many districts have continued to make strong progress; in some cases all that was needed was adding some new structures and guidelines to evaluations they already have in place.
Among the pilot districts, for instance, one guideline of the new system will see principals getting formal site visits from their superiors at least two times a year, three times for nontenured principals.
“That’s likely happening already, maybe using different instruments and having slightly different conversations,” said Timothy Matheney, the state’s director of educator evaluation and a former principal in South Brunswick.
Still, as a former principal, Matheney also recognized the stress involved.
“There is a lot of work that goes into learning the frameworks and making sure you are implementing them in a thoughtful way,” he said. “No question, they are feeling some stress in this capacity-building year.”
Beating its own schedule by a week, the state last week put out a list of seven evaluation models that have been approved for use in the principal initiative. The state will also take applications from districts to develop their own models, and has approved one already.
Zychowski said his district has chosen its model and is now in the midst of finishing training for its administrators.
As a pilot district for the principal evaluation, it received close to $90,000 in extra aid from the state, which has so far covered the costs.
In the end, Zychowski said it is a useful practice, and reiterated that the conversations about teacher and principal evaluation have already started to change.
He said it will take some continuing adjustments. “Not necessarily in a bad way, but our heads are spinning."