Changing the Rules on How NJ Educators are Evaluated

What does it take to decide how NJ educators are paid and tenured? Start with a 37-member committee

How do you judge a good teacher or principal? First, you form a committee, a really big committee.

At least that’s the tack New Jersey is taking as it launches an ambitious plan to revamp how public school educators are evaluated, compensated and tenured.

Detailed in its application for federal Race to the Top money, New Jersey’s new system would include for the first time using student achievement measures like test scores to judge teachers and administrators across the state. The system will also include measures of agreed-upon “effective practices.”

But as the first step Education Commissioner Bret Schundler has invited prominent state groups and others to nominate members to the new Educational Effectiveness Evaluation Committee, the high-stakes group of no less than 37 people charged with recommending how exactly the system will work.

“The EEEC will explore teacher and leader evaluation models and ultimately propose a statewide evaluation system that will inform decisions about various school policies, including professional development, compensation, bonuses, and the awarding of tenure,” said Schundler in a July 23 invitation letter.

Running the Numbers

Actually, the first task may be determining how the committee will work. Sixteen of the 37 will be from the education groups: one each from the state’s teachers unions; two each from business, higher education and the legislature.

Another 12 will come from the school districts themselves, with an eye on a cross-section of schools, positions and experience. And the last nine will be “invitation of the commissioner,” including experts in policy, research and school culture.

“This is a really important project, and as an association, we certainly stand behind the effort,” said Debra Bradley, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

“Not only does it affect our members [in their evaluations], but we’re the ones who are going to have to implement it,” she said.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s dominant teachers union, is cautious about what may come out of the project, especially if there is heavy emphasis on standardized test scores. The NJEA has been in frequent battle with Gov. Chris Christie, including over the filing of this very application.

But its leaders said yesterday the union looks forward to participating.

“The devil will be in the details of how this is pursued,” said Michael Cohan, director of professional development for the NJEA. “But if it’s good people with an open mind and plans to approach it objectively, the institution at large can only benefit.”

According to the plan, the nominations are due go back to Schundler by Aug. 13, with the committee set to hold its first meeting in September.

The committee’s opening charge will be to determine the evaluation system for teachers in math and language arts, subjects in which students are tested by the state at least seven times and in which student achievement measures will count for “at least 50 percent” of an educator’s grade, according to the proposal.

A Statewide System of Evaluation

The first draft of recommendations are to be ready by January, undergo further review by the state Board of Education and the commissioner and be ready for testing in pilot districts in the spring and fall 2011. The plan is for a statewide evaluation system to be ready for the fall of 2012.

The plan lays a separate path for determining how evaluations will work for teachers in non-tested subjects like social studies and the arts, given there will not be the same ready-made measures as math and language arts. The first testing of those teacher evaluations will begin in the fall of 2012.

Bradley of the principals group said she hopes the committee will rely heavily on the word of those in the schools.

“As much as the stakeholder groups are important, you need the people who do this for a living, who know what’s practical and what’s valuable in how you evaluate staff,” she said.

The separate track for the teachers in tested subjects points to the likelihood that the state’s standardized tests will be a significant piece of the formula, a prospect that worries others who are participating

“We’re just not sure that the tests are all that valid,” said Cohan of the NJEA. “And they say at least 50 percent. What you can end up doing is just teaching to the test, rather than helping the students master the necessary skills. That’s what concerns us.”

But there’s general agreement that student achievement is to be codified into the process as never before, whether the groups like it or not, and it will be up to 37 people — not to mention Schundler and Christie — to determine how that will happen.

“There are clearly places out there where there have been good conversations around student achievement,” Cohan said. “Our greatest hope is that we can focus this group on those conversations so we have a positive impact on practitioners.”