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NJ Spotlight Roundtable: Judging Teachers By Student Performance

Since New Jersey first started talking about revamping teacher evaluations, the biggest point of contention has always been the use of student performance in the equation.

The argument goes that so many factors go into a student’s grade on a test or other assessment that it is an unreliable gauge of a teacher’s effectiveness.

Conversely, those pushing for the greater use of student data maintain that ultimately the goal of every teacher must be improved student learning and that schools have been remiss in not counting it enough.

That debate came to the fore in NJ Spotlight’s Roundtable on Saturday during discussion of New Jersey’s new teacher-tenure law and the development of a statewide teacher-evaluation system.

In a panel discussion held at Rutgers-Newark, state policy-makers, district administrators and school staff weighed in balancing student performance and teacher performance.

Several of the panelists work in districts that are now piloting the new evaluations, the testing ground for when the systems will go into effect statewide in 2013-14.

Following are excerpts from that discussion. NJ Spotlight has separately posted excerpts from the discussion during the same program about the looming deadlines for having the new evaluation system in place.

Status report on student performance being included in teacher evaluations

Timothy Matheney, Director of Evaluation, NJ Department of Education:

For teachers in math and language arts, between grades 4 and 8, we are currently working on developing student growth (ratings) for the pilots. … We will be sharing that with the pilots so we can get feedback. That's for about 20 percent of teachers.

For non-tested grades and subjects, we are looking at a number of states and large urban districts like Memphis, Washington, D.C., and New Haven. There are a couple of different approaches that we could pursue. One is a student learning objective or growth target where teachers and administrators are identifying ways for measuring their own students' growth. Another approach, in North Carolina and Hillsborough County, Fla., is to try to write a test for everything. Philosophically, I don't see the state of New Jersey going in that direction.

Where do you draw the line?

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), primary sponsor of the new tenure law: The thing we wanted to insure in the bill was to create firewalls so that long after we were all gone, someone wouldn't come in and use one test (in judging a teacher) and say that's it.

The evaluations we created will not be the evaluations that we will use in 10-15 years. Variables will have to change. Classroom instruction changes. Evaluations should be dynamic and not stagnant. But certainly it’s an important factor: We must include students' growth and what's happening in the classroom.

Reality strikes

Christine Candela, English teacher, Secaucus High School: I have a classroom that is overflowing, and if my students’ performance is going to affect how I'm paid or if I'm kept as a teacher, I don't know what to do. It is a heterogeneous class -- I have students with (special needs), I have honor students. You want every day to be highly effective, you want to get a gold star every day, but when you look in a room when you have to bring in more desks, you just ask how do I do this.

If they based my evaluation on a test, I could give a test my (Advanced Placement) students would knock out of the park. But if I am going to do my job right, I have to give them the simulated AP exams. For me to do my job my job right, I have to test them on that. I tell them it will help you when they take the actual exam.

Not a straight line

Jasonn Denard, Humanities chairman, Art High School in Newark:

I think we are forgetting about an important part of the process. Students are to achieve, yes. Teachers are to be evaluated, yes. But if the evaluation shows this teacher is having issues, there is something that has to take place to make that connection to student achievement. That is support and additional training that the teacher needs to go through. We don’t talk about that nearly enough. We jump from the evaluation of the teacher to what students have achieved, and there is a great deal of work that goes on in between. If we are going to evaluate, we have to support.

Testing science still evolving

Matheney: We do hope the science gets better, but at this point in time, we make the best decisions we can based on the best research in the field. We're taking into account all the concerns. We are trying to get it right.

We are moving closer and closer to measuring teachers’ effectiveness by how far they take their students every year. Isn't that what we should have been assessing teachers in the past, how far they take their students? It's about where they are on Day One and where they are at the end of the year, and by building sophisticated instruments, we can capture that. It is not about measuring AP kids against those still developing English skills. The system takes that into account.

Concerned educators

Candela: I am nervous. What if the test isn’t taken seriously, or we're over-testing them and then they're numb to it? I have heard them say that about SATs. What if that is the test I am being measured on?

Joan Cali, guidance counselor and president of the Secaucus Education Association: When they take a teacher moving from a certain grade to another, is there any variable if they are in the first year? How can they get penalized for going through a growth process themselves? They are learning, too, and that's what scares me for the teachers. You will not have 180 days of your A game, that's impossible, something will happen. There are just so many variables.

Work in progress

David Pawlowski, principal, Alexandria Middle School: Being a small district, we have a couple of advantages. The way we worked together putting this (system) out, at first there was apprehension and anxiety. What I have seen happen over the course of the last two years, my teachers now are grabbing data. You can see them lift up and say, “I'm getting it.” Through change there will always be anxiety, but we lived through that and at this point I see my teachers looking at their students, identifying areas of need and creating specific goals for those needs and creating instructional strategies for addressing those areas.

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