School Districts Comparison Shop for Teacher Evaluation Systems

John Mooney | October 17, 2012 | Education
End-of-year deadline puts pressures on educators and system developers alike

His Virginia accent coming through, James Stronge told representatives of dozens of New Jersey school districts that his teacher evaluation model was the right tool for the task. He also graciously said that none of his main competitors would be a bad choice.

But he didn’t hide the fact that he was making a sales pitch to the 100 or so school leaders gathered for his presentation yesterday at the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association in Monroe.

“I’m not at all biased,” he said with a smile, “but this is the best tool and I hope you choose it.”

New Jersey schools are definitely in the market for an evaluation model, facing an end-of-year deadline set by the state to make their choices.

That model is a central part of the new tenure law enacted this summer, one that revamps when and how teachers receive tenure and requires districts to use an evaluation system that will accurately measure teacher performance.

One of the options for districts is devising their own systems, something that many have done for years, but now they need the state’s OK. But the majority are comparison shopping among nearly a dozen models that the state has approved from an array of researchers, educators, and other practitioners across the country.

To the layman, they are not terribly different, each focusing on a few key characteristics of good teaching — from strong lesson planning to effective classroom management. The real distinctions are in how they are packaged, the systems used for collecting data, the extra tools and training that are included, and — of course — the cost.

Many of the models go by the names of their developers, names like Robert Marzano, Kim Marshall and Charlotte Danielson, the last an especially popular program developed by an educational consultant out of Princeton.

The eponymous Stronge Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Performance Evaluation System was developed by the College of William and Mary education professor and has been adopted by a four states and about 50 districts so far in New Jersey.

It also has been endorsed by the principals association and has some advantages that made for an engaged audience yesterday.

The system focuses on a seven standards, rather than as many as 70 indicators used by other models such as Danielson.

It also provides a model for evaluating principals, another requirement of the tenure law.

But anything more than a cursory description takes time, taking almost three hours to detail just the teacher part of the presentation.

A key component of any model that wins state approval is that student performance — whether standardized test scores or other measures — constitute as much as half of a teacher’s eventual rating.

Stronge played up that requirement.

“This is where my tool is superior,” he said. “We have been working with this for a long time, and it’s not just an add-on for us.”

But he also talked about flexibility, and even acknowledged his product’s shortcomings in pegging exactly where a teacher will fall in the four categories to be used in New Jersey: highly effective, effective, partially effective, and ineffective.

“That summative rating is a bit artificial,” he said. “There is a margin of error, and that is a best estimate.”

Still Stronge’s system doesn’t lack precision, with teachers from elementary through high school judged via classroom observations, their own goal-setting, and optionally by student surveys.

Virtually every evaluation model is coupled with an online platform that will let administrators and teachers automate everything from comments and schedules to evaluations and conferences to eventual improvement plans and ultimate scoring.

The Stronge technology’s platform developed by My Learning Plan Inc. came with a half-hour presentation as well.

If a teacher shows shortcomings in classroom management, for instance, a number of professional development programs will automatically flash tips on the screen to help him or her. Status reports on every teacher’s progress and evaluations are quick to click. And once the last reviews are done and the data entered, a numerical score is another click away to determine the final rating.

It’s even color coded. “Red is stop,” Stronge said of the lowest rating. “You need to head in an other direction, because you are harming kids.”

The audience of educators came with plenty of their own questions. The superintendent of Summit schools, Nathan Parker, quizzed Stronge on whether this or any other system will help with the challenge faced by all educators in closing the achievement gaps among students.

Stronge maintained it would, saying that raising the quality of teaching in any district and especially in low-income ones improves student performance.

“When you get rid of bad teachers, achievement goes up,” he said.

Another asked about Stronge’s own sense of the breakdown of teachers in a typical district once a system like his was put in place. He said there is no standard, adding that research had found a slightly skewed bell curve in the typical district: 20 percent are “highly effective,” 60 percent to 65 percent are “effective,” 10 percent are “partially effective” and 3 percent to 5 percent are “ineffective.”

Another asked where is the time in the day to prepare for what most agreed is a big change in their operations.

“It is tough because the state moved up the timeframe,” Stronge said of the tenure law requiring that systems be ready and in place by next fall. “Think of yourselves as a pilot and plan for the summer.”

And last but not least came price, not cheap for any district. Under the Stronge plan, it will cost $24 for every employee each year, plus a $3,000 installation fee, and another $3,000 a day for three days of administrative training. Teacher training is extra.

“A lot of districts have asked us to provide teacher training, but we also give you the materials to do the training as well,” he said.

As the group broke for lunch, it was a lot for educators to digest. Gilbert Moscatello, a recently retired principal and assistant principal in West Morris school district, is part of a district committee reviewing the options. He said Stronge was among the top two or three he’d examined so far.

“Whether it’s this one or another like Danielson or Marzano, there is not one that goes, ‘Wow, there’s something new,’” he said. “But it comes down to the presentation, it comes down to the backup information.”

He said Stronge has an advantage, since his district is already using the My Learning Plan technology platform. And he said it is not out of the question that the district could stay with its own evaluation system, focusing on all the same standards and serving the schools well so far.

“But we don’t have all the training, we don’t have the trainers manuals, we don’t have the videos that help in training,” he said. “There’s that whole backend that is required.”

Through it all, he said there were some comments from Stronge about teacher quality that shouldn’t be lost, either.

“He said some things that any administrator would agree with any time of the day,” Moscatello said. “The important thing you can do as a principal is your hire. You hire good people, you get good results.”