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NJEA Raises Red Flag at First Public Hearing on Teacher Evaluation

John Mooney | April 4, 2013

Union says student performance weighs too heavily in first-year evaluations.

Filling the small conference room where the State Board of Education meets in Trenton yesterday, about 40 members of the New Jersey Education Association tried to make their union’s presence felt in the push and pull over the state’s new teacher evaluation system.

The board was in session to take up the administrative regulations that detail how New Jersey's 500-plus school districts will implement the evaluations required by TEACHNJ, the landmark teacher tenure law approved last summer.

It was largely a procedural step -- known as the “second discussion” -- before the board formalizes the proposed regulations next month.

It was also the first of two required public hearings on the plans. And it was where the NJEA intended to show that it still wanted its say.

The big issue was how student test scores would be used to judge at least some teachers -- a sore point not just in New Jersey, but nationwide.

The administration says that student progress on state exams will count as 35 percent of a teacher's rating. That affects the roughly one in five teachers whose students now sit for those exams, essentially language arts and math in grades 4 through 8, but will become more of a concern as additional state tests are introduced.

The balance of the rating would largely be determined by classroom observation.

Student progress on locally based measures would account for 15 percent of the rating for teachers whose subjects are not covered by statewide tests.

Although the NJEA didn't get down to specific percentages, the gist of its argument is that the administration is relying too heavily on student test scores, at least in the initial year of the evaluations.

Yes, this is the same union that last summer helped negotiate the final version of the tenure law. But NJEA leaders said yesterday that they had trusted that the administration would gradually ramp up the reliance on student performance.

"The new law was the result of collaboration and compromise on all sides,” said NJEA president Barbara Keshishian in prepared testimony. "Unfortunately, I can’t make the same statements about the implementation" of the law.

“Rushing into a high-stakes evaluation system would be a disservice to the students and teachers of New Jersey,” Keshishian said. “New Jersey can afford to wait.”

About a dozen of the NJEA’s members joined their president in testifying on a range of issues. How, for example, would teachers be judged who have co-teachers or student teachers in their classes? What about teachers who change courses and grades from one year to the next?

One Hopewell special education teacher, Heidi Olson, said the myriad of uncertainties do not portend well for schools or students.

“If this goes through, we’ll have a statewide train wreck,” she testified.

Still, there was little indication that the Christie administration was about to ease off, or that the State Board was about to insist on it.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and his staff did make some amendments that would limit how much state testing could be used for teachers’ ratings, capping it to no more than 35 percent in the first year.

“Any way you interpret the law, we are making sure that [test scores] are not a predominant factor,” said assistant commissioner Peter Shulman, who has become the point man on the effort.

Shulman announced a few other amendments, repeatedly saying he wanted to work with educators and address their concerns.

But while a few board members quizzed Shulman on the plan, the administration appeared to be sticking to its 35 percent.

Shulman said the department was being conservative.

“We’re trying to use what the research says is appropriate and even be on the low end of that,” he said, citing the recent national study known as the Measuring Effective Teaching (MET) Project. It establishes a range that tops out at 50 percent and is a favorite citation for the administration.

For the most part, the board steered clear of the tussle between the union and the administration. Some board members raised a few specific questions about the late timing of the state test scores coming back and the potential impact that will have. But board president Arcelio Aponte said afterward that he didn’t expect a big change in at least the baseline plan to start.

“It will be confusing to keep changing the (percentages),” he said. “I think we set the standard now, and then we can evaluate it over time.”

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