The binder delivered recently to every state Board of Education member by the state’s largest teachers union is notable for several reasons – including its sheer mass.
It’s almost six inches thick and contains more than 1,000 letters from teachers and others airing complaints about the Christie administration’s school-reform push, especially changes in the way teachers and evaluated.
But how much it is changing any minds on the board or the administration is far less certain.
In one letter, a 30-year-veteran teacher described how she spends all her time documenting “every 15 minutes” of her day and filling out different state-mandated forms.
“I am really exhausted and reached a total burnout,” she wrote.
Another teacher suggested that the administration’s goal in the new evaluation system is to create “Stepford teachers who teach in lockstep fashion geared only to improving test scores.”
“I am no longer a teacher,” she wrote. “I am a test administrator and data collector.”
Solicited by the New Jersey Education Association, the letters have proven to be a powerful tool in spurring debate about the new evaluation system created under the state’s tenure-reform law, known as TEACHNJ.
The law requires every school district to adopt evaluation models – some more prescriptive than others -- for both its teachers and principals. Ultimately, the educators are to be measured on a four-point scale ranging from “ineffective” to “highly effective.”
The letters gathered by the NJEA reflect increasing questions about the evaluations in their first year of implementation, including how they are conducted and how much student performance factors in.
For teachers in tested grades and subjects, student progress on state tests comprise as much as one-third of their evaluations. A new hybrid of student measures called “student growth objectives” (SGO) that are individually set by teachers and principals are being used to gauge the performance of others.
The letters, complementing testimony by more than 70 teachers who appeared before the state board last month, were the subject of considerable discussion by state board members during their meeting yesterday, as they considered a series of mostly routine amendments to the regulations.
While the amendments were not debated much, both administration officials and board members said there clearly appeared to be a communications problem in getting across details of the new evaluation system.
Several said that some of the stories being told by teachers in their letters and testimony don’t match what the state has actually required.
One cited a letter from a teacher that said half of her evaluation was based on a single student measure.
“Based on what we heard today and the misinformation out there, this board needs information if we are going out and to talk to people,” said Mark Biedron, a board member from Tewksbury.
“If you were to read these letters, you would think the entire evaluation is based on a single SGO,” he said. “That is what people believe.”
The meeting was the first for acting Education Commissioner David Hespe since being appointed about a month ago by Gov. Chris Christie.
Hespe said he was open to the idea of providing flexibility within the law and regulations to address the concerns of school districts.
“Over the last 25 years, this change is probably the most significant in the state in that it gets down into every classroom,” Hespe said. “This change process is enormous, and change doesn’t come easily.”
Asked specifically afterward whether he would be open to delaying the high stakes of the evaluations for a year, as the NJEA and others have requested, Hespe said he was not ready to do so, at least not yet.
“It is too early to make those decisions,” he said. “We can maybe make those decisions when we have more information.
“We know it is a complicated process, and from my perspective, it has gone as we would have thought,” Hespe continued.