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Independent Report: Teachers Remain Skeptical About New Evaluation System

Study also raises concerns about deadlines and reliability, but lead author finds reasons to be optimistic.

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With less than nine months and counting, New Jersey’s rollout of a statewide teacher evaluation system is moving ahead, but the deadlines are tight, reliability remains an issue -- and the system has yet to win the confidence of the teachers it's intended to evaluate.

That was the bottom line of a sweeping report by a team of Rutgers researchers that is following the early implementation of the system.

According to the state’s new tenure law, every district must have a revamped evaluation system in place by next school year.

The cautions and caveats of the report were tempered by the fact that the study was only looking at the first 10 pilot districts in their first year (2011-2012). Another 20 districts are in a second-year pilot that will be reported on this summer.

The report also did not delve into a central piece of the new process: the use of student achievement scores as a significant part of the evaluation.

Still, there were some sobering findings. For instance, just one-third of the teachers in the first-year pilot thought the system accurately measured their classroom performance.

The approval rate was twice as high among administrators.

Researchers also said that time was in short supply -- both to train educators and to complete the evaluations. And there also were questions about the consistency of the evaluations and their statistical reliability, the researchers said.

Still, the chief author yesterday said the study of the first-year pilots gave him reason to be optimistic about statewide implementation -- albeit with the reservations spelled out in the report.

“It’s a challenge, but people are working hard at it, and making some real progress,” said William Firestone, the researcher with Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education hired by the state Department of Education to do the external review.

The Christie administration celebrated the report, putting out a press release that called it -- along with an internal study prepared by the Evaluation Pilot Advisory Committee -- a “positive” review.

“While we never expected the first year of the pilot to be perfect, we are motivated by the finding that educators are having more meaningful conversations than ever before about effective teaching, which of course is the first step to helping continuously improve student outcomes,” said state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf in the press release.

Nevertheless, how much the report will influence the state’s fall rollout remains to be determined. The education department has already taken several steps to address local challenges, adding some flexibility as to when and how districts need to have the systems in place.

But other questions about the reliability of the evaluations have gotten less public attention, as is true for the lukewarm reception from the teachers themselves.

The state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, has been working closely with the department, seeking to influence the development of the program. Union officials are meeting again this week, and its team leader said that the teacher reaction reported by the Rutgers study was reason for pause.

“Teachers are honest in saying these evaluations do not always reflect what is actually happening in their classrooms,” said Rosemary Knab, an associate director of research with the NJEA. “There seems a very strong disconnect between the teachers and the administrators on this.”

The next big step will come next month, with the introduction of the new state regulations about teacher evaluation and tenure reform. Student performance measure are also scheduled for rollout.

The department so far has not divulged any of its plans. It did say yesterday that it remained on track to have the new systems in place for next fall, but it added that it's willing to make adjustments as necessary.

“As districts launch their evaluation systems in the fall, the Department will continue to gather feedback, analyze research, and engage practitioners in a cycle of continuous improvement,” read the state’s announcement.

“Lessons learned from all districts across the state will inform future plans," it continued, "including new or modified proposed regulations as needed.”

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