Five Months After It Was Formed, Teacher Evaluation Task Force Files Its Report

John Mooney | March 4, 2011 | Education
Gov. Christie gets everything he asked for, as well as some unsolicited advice about challenges and obstacles

Credit: (Tim Larsen/Governor's Office)
Governor Chris Christie flanked by Brian Zychowski (left), chair of the teacher effectiveness task force, and acting commissioner of education Chris Cerf.
After five months, Gov. Chris Christie’s teacher evaluation task force came back with a 44-page report that fulfilled pretty much what it was charged.

Christie in his drive to bring more accountability to schools and their teachers asked for a system that would evaluate teachers by the performance of their students. With mathematical precision, the task force outlined a plan where student performance on state and other tests would count for 50 percent.

There is a second system for evaluating principals by the quality of their leadership, their scores and their staffs.

Announced in a Statehouse press conference yesterday with Christie and education commissioner Chris Cerf, the report also contained an unexpected section that could prove more telling to the ultimate success of Christie’s agenda.

The Back of the Book

Tucked into the back of the report and garnering all of a paragraph in the three-page press release, the nine-member task force included a chapter titled “Conditions of Success” that it conceded was not requested by the governor.

The section outlined the real-life challenges and obstacles to bringing an effective evaluation system to New Jersey.

“As the Task Force studied the complex field of educator evaluations, it became clear that evaluation systems cannot be considered in isolation,” started the section. “In order for an evaluation system to have a meaningful and lasting impact, many other supportive policies and practices must be in place.”

For four pages in this final section, the task force spoke of the critical need for professional training for teachers and principals. It detailed the shortcomings of the state’s data and assessment systems. And it even called for a rethinking of how educators spend their time.

It states that principals need to be free to do thorough observations and evaluations, even as many as eight in a year. And the report recognized a new culture is needed for many teachers.

“Teachers may need to spend more time learning how to reach the most disadvantaged students, use data in the classroom, and align instruction with clear performance goals,” it read.

The report closed with a recommendation for a three-year phase-in of any statewide evaluation system, starting with a pilot involving a handful of districts.

“There is a three year — maybe two-and-a-half-year — opportunity to get this right,” said Brian Zychowski, the North Brunswick superintendent who chaired the task force.

Teacher Evaluations

The report was not without details about how to do the right thing, although it leaves many of the toughest decisions to the administration. It laid out a plan for splitting teacher evaluations: half based on how a teacher’s students have shown achievement growth, mostly through state tests, the other half based on classroom observations and other more subjective measures.

In the press conference, Christie yesterday praised the report and said it was a “good start” in developing a system that he hoped would determine how teachers are paid, promoted and retained.

And the governor tempered his past demands for quick action in what is a centerpiece of his education agenda, and instead struck a tone of patience and deliberation yesterday.

“You can’t turn on a light switch overnight to change a sclerotic system,” Christie said during the press conference. “It will take a little time.”

He acknowledged a successful evaluation system would cost more money as well, something that he currently doesn’t have allotted in his proposed state budget. A central piece is the upgrade of the student data system, one that the department’s own staff has said is at least a year from reliably linking teachers with individual student performance.

“Commissioner Cerf said it will take about $10 million to implement this policy,” Christie said. “If we do enact this, we can find the $10 million.”

Taking It to the Streets

Christie also said he would begin traveling the state with Cerf to meet with stakeholders and others to fill in the details of the system, saying that would include the school principals who would be charged with implementing the systems.

Well, not all the stakeholders, he said, as the governor fell back into form in criticizing his frequent nemesis: the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). The teachers union was not picked to be on the task force, and has been a consistent critic of using test scores to evaluate teachers.

“They have to show they are serious about reform in New Jersey, and they haven’t,” the governor said, his mood not likely helped by thousands of police and firefighters also protesting outside the Statehouse at the same time as the press conference.

Bringing up an episode from nearly a year ago, he alluded to when the teachers union’s Bergen County president spoke in what some said was in jest about the death of the governor.

Asked twice if he would meet with the NJEA’s leaders, Christie said: “Not until they fire the guy in Bergen County.”

And he didn’t spare the NJEA’s statewide president either, calling her and executive director Vince Giordano “a joke. And expensive jokes, too, at her $260,000 a year. Well, her members are not getting their money’s worth.”

The NJEA fired back later, calling the insults a “new low” for the governor and saying the Bergen County president was elected by his members and cannot be fired. “If personal insults are an issue for the governor, he’s been insulting us for a year,” said spokesman Steve Wollmer.

Whatever the case, the ongoing war of words between the governor and union was a sidelight to what prompted the press conference to begin with, the task force’s report. But maybe another cautionary note to the obstacles that lay ahead in building the evaluation system.

In the task force report, there is also subchapter entitled “Engaging and Educating Teachers and Principals.”

“We recommend that the Commissioner develop plans for ensuring that educators are made aware of the contours and consequences of the new system, given the opportunity to learn why and how it will work, and engage in its implementation,” it read.