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NJ Spotlight Roundtable: Evaluating New Approach to Evaluating Educators

As part of its ongoing Roundtable Series, NJ Spotlight on Saturday hosted a panel discussion on New Jersey’s efforts to overhaul the way school districts evaluate teachers, principals and other staff.

NJ Spotlight’s third such event on the topic – held at Rutgers-Newark before about 100 people -- was the first since Gov. Chris Christie this summer signed a new tenure law that raises the stakes for educators on how they fare in those evaluations.

Among the participants was the prime sponsor of that legislation, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), along with state and local officials and educators who have been charged with putting the new law into practice.

The conversation ranged from how pilot districts now testing the system – both urban and suburban – are progressing, to indications from Ruiz that she might consider some flexibility for all districts facing tight deadlines.

Some of the liveliest exchanges centered on plans to factor student performance, including test scores, into a teacher’s evaluation, which has been the most controversial part of the law.

Following are excerpts from the discussion on timelines and progress so far in meeting them. Excerpts from the discussion about using student test scores and other measures as part of the evaluation will follow tomorrow:

Progress So Far

Timothy Matheney, Director of Evaluation, NJ Department of Education: The state is working with a total of 36 pilot districts, 22 pilot districts on the teacher side and 14 on the principal side. We have had a chance to learn from a year of their experience. Statewide, (other) districts are highly involved in this work, and I would say many, many districts, if not a majority of districts, are already training on evaluation models, both training observers and teachers. Those that are not training yet do have that deadline of Dec. 31 to adopt evaluation instruments.

This period between now and February is really intensive time in the Office of Evaluation, as we will need to make some very significant policy decisions in preparation to submitting regulations to the state board in March. Local districts can look for a pretty significant public information campaign to start in February and continue through the end of the year.

David Pawlowski, principal, Alexandria Middle School, one of the pilot districts: In our first year, we provided an inordinate amount of training for our teachers. It's all about the training, and I believe that had a positive impact on our ability to implement an evaluation system that is very different than what we had in the past.

We have all been there as teachers with an administrator who would come into the classroom and do an observation that was a narrative paragraph that really didn't have a standard or was based on expectations… We really got to a point where we were looking for very clear expectations to what the performance in the classroom should look like.

No Shortage of Anxiety

Joan Cali, guidance counselor and president of the Secaucus Education Association in Secaucus public schools, also one of the pilot districts: There is a lot of anxiety. Teachers are concerned with how evaluations will be tied into tenure…Their anxiety levels have gone down since we did extensive training, and I believe with teachers training the teachers, they felt much more comfortable and much more receptive and willing to ask questions.

How It Has Changed in the Classroom

Christine Candela, English teacher, Secaucus High School: I don't think it changes how I teach. I would like to think I would teach the same no matter whether you walk into the classroom. The biggest thing is the number of times that (an observer) is coming into the room. I can see kids reacting, asking why is somebody always in here. It does make them behave differently. The kids think they are diagnosing me, it's a test and they see the process….It is a little distracting in that (the observers) are typing constantly. When I see the breakdown in at least our model, it's like there’s a time stamp of everything I did… You need to be on your toes.

How It Has Changed for Administrators

Jasonn Denard, Humanities chairman, Arts High School in Newark: It is a lot of time on the administrator, and that is going to be the balance that will be the difficult part in any district, finding the balance between evaluating and supporting. That is going to make this work or not work in any district. The evaluation is just a rating, just a number, and the support is what will be most important.

Sen. Ruiz’s Time Expectations

Ruiz: I think this is something that the Department of Education and the (Senate education) committee should re-engage in the conversation when we get to the markers of where we are. Responsible discussions will have to be had after that. If districts have made a concerted effort to really demonstrate they worked to their capacity to create something and still haven't met them, it is to no fault of anyone. I would be open to engaging in discussion of potential opportunities for them. This is a collaborative partnership.

When we launched the calendar in the bill, it was other stakeholders groups that really truncated the time for the purposes of wanting to get this up and running.

Didn’t Start with Tenure Law

Matheney: We should revisit the fact that in 2010-11, the governor launched a task force to look at educator evaluation. And many districts were beginning to plan already for the likelihood that the evaluation system would be changing. For the vast majority of districts, the signing of the tenure law was not the first day that educator evaluation work began. It really was just another benchmark date for a lot of good work that was already happening.

We are mindful of the fact there are low-capacity districts that have a lot of issues on their plate besides educator evaluation, and those districts are the places where we need to be enormously supportive over the next year.

The Tradeoff and a Response

Pawlowski: As a school administrator, the most important part of our job is to create an environment that fosters academic excellence for kids. We are here to educate children, and if we don’t have an evaluation system that can measure that, we are missing the boat. Yes, it takes time, it takes professional development, but the tradeoff of (taking more time) is we will still have inadequate teachers in the classroom. That's the work in front of us.

Cali: We're not a large district, and we're struggling. And I can't imagine a place like Newark. Not one model, not one design fits all of us. Our needs are different, our students are different, our transient populations are different. We all want to give them all the best education.

Now this year will be different in that we are taking in students hard hit from Hurricane Sandy, and that will factor in, never mind the districts that don’t have schools. The timeline this year has to be looked at; there are too many outside variables affecting it, never mind just education itself.

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