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Charter Schools Chart Course for Teacher Evaluations

State issues guidelines that are far less stringent than new rules for evaluation of district school educators.

Following a parallel but very different path from their district school brethren, New Jersey’s charter schools are finalizing plans for how they will evaluate their teachers and principals.

Unlike district schools, charter schools do not fall under the state’s new tenure reform bill, known as TEACHNJ, which specifies much of how evaluations must be conducted and teachers rated.

And very unlike district schools, New Jersey’s charter schools are not required at all to use student achievement measures, including in state testing, to measure their individual teachers – avoiding an issue that has roiled school districts and their educators.

But the charter schools are still required to submit evaluation plans for state approval. Facing a June 30 deadline, the charter schools have begun to file those plans, which range from ones that mirror district plans to those that are entirely home-grown.

As of last week, about 10 plans had been filed by charter schools, including two released by the state -- one includes student achievement as a prominent measure and the other doesn’t mention it. The state would not release the other plans until they are approved, a spokeswoman said.

Red Bank Charter School used a system with four different measures of how teachers meet specific goals for raising student achievement levels by a certain percentage, both school-wide and individually. In addition to classroom observations and professionalism, overall student achievement would represent 20 percent of the evaluation rating, which also would help determine teacher salary levels for the teacher. Classroom observations, formal and informal, would account for 50 percent. The higher the evaluation rating, the higher the maximum salary, topping out at $70,000.

In contrast, Soaring Heights Academy Charter School] in Jersey City is using a system where teachers are observed by committees of fellow teachers from a minimum of 25 times to as many as 200 times a year.

There are no hard and fast percentages, but every teacher is part of the process, observing others at least 25 times. Teachers would be judged based on seven different standards including instructional strategies, planning and content knowledge. There is no student performance component in the Soaring Heights plan.

“In a society seeking to improve teacher performance, Soaring Heights Charter School is unique,” read the plan submitted to the state. “The teacher evaluation model derives its vitality from the fact that the school is teacher managed and operated, which leads to teachers being highly invested in each other’s performance.”

State officials maintain that teacher accountability for student progress comes in the approval and monitoring of the charter schools as a whole, and those that don’t ensure it from their teachers won’t see their school-wide performance meet the state’s overall requirements.

Unlike district schools, they said, those charters that don’t achieve those standards face possible closure.

“In general, we believe this is up to the school to decide what works for them,” said Amy Ruck, director of the state’s charter school office, which must sign off on the plans.

“If the school is not taking the time to do the evaluations and analyze the results, they will not be where they need to be in terms of the performance standards we require,” she said.

In guidelines last week, the state listed four broad criteria for charters in developing their evaluation systems:

“The Office of Charter Schools recommends that charter schools’ teacher evaluation systems include the following components: + Multiple measures of performance to evaluate teachers including student achievement and teacher practice. +A method for calculating an overall (summative) evaluation rating that combines the multiple measures of teacher practice and student achievement. Charter schools should use multiple ratings to evaluate their teachers; + Sample of the teacher practice instrument to be used in classroom observations (e.g. Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching); and + Clear delineation of differences in the teacher evaluation system between tenured and nontenured teachers including number of observations the charter school will require for tenured and nontenured teachers.”

Less than two pages in all, the guidelines are in stark contrast to the voluminous regulations being promulgated for district schools under the new TEACHNJ Act, down to the precise percentages in formulating a teacher’s ultimate ratings, ranging from “ineffective” to “highly effective.”

Under those regulations, teachers of students in tested grades and subjects will see 35 percent of their rating based on a student progress on state tests. The bulk of the ratings – 50 percent -- is decided by observations of their classroom practice. Teachers who receive two consecutive negative ratings will be at risk of losing their jobs.

The fact that charter schools were left out of the new tenure law in the first place was always a sore point for some of the state’s larger school organizations, especially its teacher unions.

Even though close to a dozen charter schools are members, leaders of the New Jersey Education Association said they tried but failed to include charter schools in the new law.

“NJEA has always believed that public charter school teachers should be covered by the same certification, tenure, and evaluation requirements as public school teachers,” said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director. “If the Christie administration believes those requirements will result in excellent teaching and enhanced student learning, why wouldn’t they agree with us on this issue?”

The head of the state’s charter school association said New Jersey’s charters already face some of the toughest regulations in the nation.

“Charter schools are constantly measuring student and teacher outcomes as part of their accountability measures,” said Carlos Perez, director of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. “They are held to the highest level of academic performance in that if charter schools do not produce satisfactory results, then the State can move to shut down a school.

“This is part of the balance between granting charter schools greater freedom while at the same time demanding higher accountability for the freedom for educational innovation,” he said.

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