Evaluating New Jersey’s Teachers: A Mosaic of Practices and Processes

Homegrown evaluation schemes can be complex, comprehensive, and effective

At one school in Bergen County, the teacher evaluation is left entirely to the principal, using a hybrid system for grading his 35 staffers, a steady stream of classroom observations and a lot of weekends reading lesson plans.

At a school in Somerset County, a principal’s classroom observations are important, but so are his daily walks through the building.

As Gov. Chris Christie looks to revamp how New Jersey’s public schools evaluate their teachers, this is just part of the varied quilt of evaluation practices that he’ll be starting with.

For good or ill, such variety has long been a hallmark of New Jersey’s — if not the nation’s — practices for judging their teachers. There are few standards statewide as to how districts should grade their own, but that allows each to set guidelines to meet its individual needs.

Now Christie wants to put those standards into law, requiring schools to rate their teachers in one of four categories, from “highly effective” to “ineffective.”

Half of the evaluation would be through tools approved by the state, including two classroom observations a year for everyone, a change from current law. The other half will be based on student achievement, including how students do on state tests.

Whether and when his proposals become law remains uncertain, with the draft bills only presented last week, but snapshots from two traditional districts provide a glimpse as to the changes and challenges they would pose in the hallways and classrooms where the principals and teachers do their jobs.

25 Lesson Plans a Week

For Emil Carafa, 20 years as a principal in Lodi, now at the Washington Elementary School, it can be a lonely job.

He is the sole administrator in the building of 430 students, and while he likes it best when he’s moving about the school, he wears many hats, including guidance counselor and even secretary some days. “If the secretary is out, I never leave the office,” he said.

But of course, his primary job is educational leader to the 35 instructional staff, all of whom he is solely responsible for managing and overseeing. And that means trying every tool at his disposal, from the informal conversations in the hallways to the state-required classroom observations, three for untenured teachers and one for tenured.

Last year he conducted 41 observations in all, as well as pre- and post-meetings with each teacher to discuss the planning of the lesson and reflect on the outcome.

“You’re looking for the lesson to be moving along, the children staying on task,” he said. “Staying within the time, using differentiated instruction in both the content and context, when you have all the pieces of the puzzle together and the children are engaged, to me, that’s proficient.”

Yet that is just one piece of the annual evaluation, with frequent look at grades and student work within the class. Every test given by a teacher is first reviewed by Carafa, and every one of their lesson plans is reviewed weekly, leaving Carafa a pile of 25 to read on most weekends.

The state test scores matter, but so does the data the district collects through its own assessments. Carafa said they all usually follow what he knows about a teacher, anyway. “I’m not often surprised,” he said. “Sometimes, you are surprised by a kid doing better or worse on the tests, but not the teachers.”

In his 10 years, Carafa estimates, 85 percent of his teachers have gotten grades for “proficient” and “satisfactory,” and a handful received the lower “needs improvement” and unsatisfactory.”

Among the latter, one teacher saw her salary raise withheld, the one disciplinary step a district can take short of tenure charges. The teacher later resigned.

A 10K Walk a Day

Tom Barclay was principal of the Orchard Hill Elementary School in Montgomery Township for six years, and now in his first year as assistant superintendent in the district, he said he misses the exercise.

“On a daily basis, I’d walk two times through the building, 6.3 miles,” he said. “I measured it with a pedometer.”

And it proved a hallmark of his management style, seeing the teachers at work early and often so that there were few surprises later in the year.

“You get the lay of the land, talk to the kids and the parents,” he said. “In many ways it is more helpful than waiting for the formal visit two or three times a year.”

“If you are waiting for the evaluation,” he said at another point, “it is probably too late.”

Still there is a formal evaluation, including the observation tool devised by Princeton-based education consultant Charlotte Danielson, which sets up dozens of criteria of a classroom visit and measures teachers along each one.

In Montgomery, the vice principal and curriculum directors also conducted the observations to provide different sets of eyes.

Yet Barclay said they also work with each teacher separately in creating what is a “formative project,” where a teacher sets the goals for a specific challenge or task to work on during the year — be it around teaching a specific form of writing or building stronger classroom management strategy.

The district is now starting to devise an even more collaborative model that would create what is called a “professional learning community,” in which teachers work closely with one another and could even be part of the evaluation team, Barclay said.

The tricky part is using state assessments, though, since Orchard Hill is preschool to second grade, with none of the students taking the state tests that start in third grade. That didn’t leave them without ways to measure progress, however, but they were their own .

“I consider it a bit of blessing, actually,” Barclay said. “But we did need to build our own assessments and data.”

Through all that, the principal can get a good measure on a teacher and the ways he or she can improve, Barclay said. But he also likes to tell his own personal story, about how as a 14-year elementary school teacher, he really came into his own when he was assigned next door to another veteran teacher who was particularly talented in teaching writing.

“It changed everything I did,” he said. “I even became the language arts supervisor because of that woman.”