Op-Ed: Looking Back and Forging Ahead — AchieveNJ through the Lens of a Pilot Superintendent

Laura C. Morana | May 15, 2013 | Opinion
Best practices are key to successful implementation, starting with collaboration, communication, and commitment

With the state preparing to implement the AchieveNJ initiative statewide, I think it’s important that we speak out as practitioners.

I am concerned that news coverage has largely focused on technical details rather than pragmatic solutions, and in doing so, has largely missed the greater purpose of this initiative. As the superintendent of a district that piloted the evaluation system over the past two years, I thought it might be useful to reflect on my district’s experience, share my view on how these changes will impact our teachers and leaders in the future, and outline the challenges we faced and the best practices we identified in working to implement this new system.

I am proud of the work we have done in my district and feel optimistic about the foundation we have set to continue AchieveNJ in the upcoming school year. I admit that building this foundation wasn’t easy, our system isn’t perfect, and that lessons learned will continue to guide our work going forward. Clear communication, collaboration, and a willingness to overcome challenges have all been keys to our success and must be at the core of the implementation as districts implement AchieveNJ statewide.

Our work through this initiative has contributed to the professional growth of all educators involved. It served as the catalyst for a re-examination of the existing instructional programs, assessment practices, and professional development plans for our district. All of our staff members from across the district needed to be engaged in this process — it could not just be a small team. Additionally, establishing a team of evaluators to conduct more observations meant we needed to build our own capacity and spend the time, energy, and resources to get them ready to work with and support our teachers.

Setting up clear communication channels not only helped engage our staff, it helped to nurture trust among teachers and between teachers and administrators.

An integral part of this work was the development of a highly effective District Evaluation Advisory Committee (DEAC). Its membership, composed of key stakeholders, worked to understand related content and expectations, enabling them to make the important decisions and become a tangible resource for teachers and administrators alike. Additionally, by ensuring that training was as comprehensive for teacher leaders as it was for administrators, we created a shared knowledge and leadership that contributed to sustained capacity building.

Challenges did exist and our staff’s willingness to overcome these has been instrumental to our success. Change is hard and it has required open minds in order to embrace what became some major cultural shifts in school buildings in order to succeed. Even in the face of these challenges though, we found that improvement can be achieved through creative problem solving and the reallocation of resources coupled with shared accountability. Knowing that we were taking this on together helped us stay focused on what is most important: the improvement of teaching practice, and ultimately, student learning.

It is easy to say, “there is so much to do, there is so much to be learned,” and to simply throw our hands in the air. Recently I put myself in our teachers’ shoes in order to understand their perspective. I dug in with some of our best teachers and challenged myself to learn about how they would set the growth objectives for their students. While this forced me out of my comfort zone, I found the process to be meaningful, rewarding, and invigorating. Similarly, the increased observation and evaluation of instruction has allowed my leadership team and me to gain deeper insights into teaching and learning processes. Collectively, we are more engaged in all aspects of what happens in our schools and our classrooms — something that we probably would not have pushed ourselves to do if we weren’t a part of this new initiative.

While I recognize that our experience is unique to our district, many can learn from the steps — and missteps — we took along the way. Through collaboration, communication, and commitment, we will improve not only the way our districts approach teaching, but also the way our children engage in learning. With similar investments, this is something all districts across the state can achieve, which means great things for New Jersey’s educators, students, and families.