Christie School Reforms Hinge on how NJ Judges its Teachers

John Mooney | September 28, 2010 | Education
Administration's Education Effectiveness Evaluation Committee gets its first few members -- and a start to the debate

Update: Gov. Chris Christie today announced the formation of a nine-member task force to help develop statewide standards and guidelines for teacher evaluation, promotion and retention. NJ Spotlight incorrectly reported it would be the 37-member committee that was previously proposed by the administration.

The three people highlighted in the following story had been slated to be on the original committee, and may not be on the new panel announced today. Still, we believe their discussion of teacher evaluation remains worthwhile. A full story on Christie’s plans to come tomorrow.

How teachers and principals are evaluated is at the heart of Gov. Chris Christie’s education reform plans, which he is expected to begin presenting today. Central to that task will be a group of educators and academics who know a thing or two about both the art and science of the process.

From the charter school community comes a longtime leader of a successful network of Newark charters, each with its own evaluation system based on shared core principles.

New Jersey’s dominant teachers union has put forward one of its senior officers, a special education teacher of 31 years from Gloucester County who said she’s not so sure the current system is broken but agrees it can be improved.

And the state’s suburban schools will be represented by a Bergen County superintendent with a long history in teacher evaluation and some admitted wariness about the whole process now underway.

Those are just three of the 37 members slated for the administration’s Education Effectiveness Evaluation Committee, which will draw from teachers, administrators, businesspeople, academics and parents, among others.

The Task at Hand

The committee is tasked with developing a statewide system — or at least guidelines — for evaluating teachers and administrators. Those evaluations would then be used to improve, promote or even dismiss educators.

It’s a path strewn with landmines, given the many interests and issues in play, but Christie has repeatedly said over the past several months that determining and maintaining teacher quality is central to his agenda for improving public schools.

As laid out in the administration’s unsuccessful applications for federal Race to the Top funds, the governor has called for evaluations that include student achievement measures and standardized test scores. Christie also wants to use evaluations to both reward and penalize teachers, and has suggested hot-button topics like creating merit pay and ending seniority and other tenure protections.

Some of the detail on those broader plans is expected to come this week, starting in one of Christie’s town hall sessions today in Old Bridge. And some of those expected to serve on the evaluation committee weren’t shy about sharing some of their ideas, while admitting they have not yet heard the committee’s formal charge.

On the TEAM

Ryan Hill heads the TEAM Charter Schools in Newark, four schools that have been among the district’s oldest and most-established charter schools and often held up as successful models. They are part of the national Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) network of charter schools.

Picked to serve on the committee by the state’s charter school association, Ryan describes his own principles with teacher evaluation as not being that complicated.

“The biggest problem right now with teacher evaluations is they don’t have any teeth, and they are largely meaningless,” he said. “There are good systems and bad, but they don’t mean anything to the teacher at the end of the day.”

Hill described four different evaluation systems in his four schools, the elementary school more driven by student assessments and data than the middle schools, but even those depending on the strengths of the personnel. Classroom observation, a core principle, is essential, but he also said he found value in surveys of teachers and students.

But the central tenets of each is that there are consequences, and he hopes New Jersey takes that to heart as it devises its own system.

“If we could have a system where teachers could be fired for doing poorly and promoted for doing well, and principals who are on the hook for school-wide results, I don’t think we need to mandate any more than that,” he said.

Representing the NJEA

Marie Blistan has taught for more than 30 years, most recently in Washington Township schools in Gloucester County before being elected secretary-treasurer to the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). If history is a guide, it’s an office that will likely lead her to be the statewide union’s president.

For now, she’s its member on the state evaluation committee. She said a lot of progress has been made in New Jersey with its professional teaching standards and requirements for mentoring novice teachers.

“I wouldn’t say the system is broken, but I do agree we should be looking at it,” she said. “Teaching and learning has changed so much. In my 30 years, we went from rote memorization to helping children think critically. Whether our evaluation systems are tapping into that research, I’d be very interested in that.”

Using test scores to judge teachers has been maybe the union’s biggest sore spot, but Blistan said they can be helpful as long as there are controls for the many variables that go into a child’s success beyond the classroom.

“It’s not just what the student learns but the rate they learn,” she said. “That’s one of the dangers in what I keep hearing. But it’s not just a simple process of moving from A to B.”

Doctor of Evaluation

Bernard Josefsberg, the Leonia schools superintendent, did his doctoral dissertation on teacher evaluation when he was a teacher at New Trier High School , a well-regarded suburban school outside Chicago.

At the time, the school used a “Merit Evaluation System” that put teachers on different scales based on performance, and adjusted their pay accordingly. By and large, he said, he found the faculty generally satisfied with the system.

But he also found that it didn’t neatly fit into a framework that could be mandated or even prescribed across districts or states, maybe a lesson to be learned in New Jersey.

“How we evaluated teachers is variable and very much dependent on what goes on within a school’s culture,” he said last night.

And that has left Josefsberg cautious about his appointment by the Garden State Coalition of Schools to serve on the evaluation committee, fearing that decisions are already made to what a statewide evaluation system would look like.

That is not to say it can’t be improved, he said. The management-union relationship has left too many supervisors worried about how they evaluate a teacher, “worried about having to defend their evaluations in a protracted grievances.”

But he said finding the right measures will be the key task, looking at everything from state standardized test scores that are relied on now to data and measures that look at learning over time with each child and across a school.

And Josefsberg said he welcomes being at the table for that discussion. “If there is a fight to be won, it will be in the quality of the performance measures,” he said.