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Op-Ed: An Open Letter to New Jersey Legislators

There's no reason that implementing the new teacher evaluation system has to be a mad rush -- and there are plenty of reasons against it.

Dear New Jersey Legislators:

We need your help.

New Jersey’s public schools are suffering under the weight of the teacher evaluation system we are compelled to implement in September 2013. The timeframe currently required by statute is neither realistic nor fair. Quite frankly, it is creating a crisis where none exists.

There is an easy solution at hand.

All you need to do is support the resolution recently introduced by Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) and Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) that seeks to postpone the implementation of this system for one year.

There are many solid reasons to do this. First, we in the field don’t even have the data or lessons learned back from the districts that piloted the system this past year. It is not even close to prudent to just jump right into a game-changer like this without taking the time to learn from strategically placed pilot districts.

Second, we need more time to explain the system to teachers and to train them on it. We have been working feverishly on that for this entire year, trying out things and seeking input from volunteers locally, but the final regulations that spell out all the details aren’t even out yet . . . and they’re not going to be out until October. It is just not fair to start evaluating somebody when the rules aren’t even finalized.

And speaking of fairness, there really needs to be another discussion about the efficacy of using student test scores to judge the effectiveness of a teacher. We’re moving so fast now that we don’t even have the opportunity to fully vet that very troubling (and in most educators’ opinion, highly flawed) aspect of the new system.

In fact, I can’t even explain to my teachers how, exactly, student test scores will affect their ratings, tenure, and pay (and I certainly don’t have the time to discuss with them the research behind, and/or the wisdom of, such ideas).

Finally, New Jersey chose to write into the landmark legislation that created this system a start date that is a full year ahead of what the federal government was demanding of states. Why in the world did we do that? If we have another year to get this right without violating any provision of a lucrative federal government grant incentive, let’s take that year and ensure we get things right! If the feds were forcing this rushed approach by dangling a financial incentive too big to pass up, we in the field would get it and we’d press on. But why are doing this to ourselves?

To be sure, some communities in our state are in crisis mode now in terms of the level of student achievement and engagement in their schools. It's very hard to argue against trying just about anything in those few communities to help students who live there. I understand and agree with the sense of urgency in those districts, and I support doing whatever we can to help their students. In fact, it should go without saying that they’re truly our students, too.

However, the overwhelming majority of districts are not in crisis mode. In fact, we do a very good job of educating our students and preparing them for the future. But this new evaluation system is so complicated, with such incredibly high stakes attached to it, that forcing us to rush its implementation is pushing us into crisis mode.

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you morale right now is at an all-time low because of the uncertainty and fear this new system is generating. And education leaders in the state are frustrated beyond description when we see and hear about the negative impact of this mad dash and are powerless to shield our teachers and schools from it.

Please give us the gift of time. You have it within your power to change the law. We want this to work. We embrace the idea of getting better at coaching and supervising teachers, helping them get better at what most of them already do quite well, and we are working hard to get everything in place. We just need a little more time.

James A. Crisfield, Ed.D., is the superintendent of Millburn Township Public Schools and the incoming president of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, an association of suburban school districts.

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