Every student deserves a great education. But how do we make this happen? In our schools, it begins with effective educators. As a classroom teacher with more than twenty years of experience, a master’s degree, and National Board certification, I was excited to learn in 2011 that New Jersey was going to overhaul its teacher evaluation system based on research findings and educator input. Teachers crave feedback. We want to know how our performance measures up and can be improved. Sadly for many years, one observation per year for tenured teachers has been the rule. But that is about to change, and I am excited.
As a teacher, how could I ever expect my students to grow if I did not give them multiple opportunities in a variety of formats to demonstrate their understanding of content? The proposed evaluation system in New Jersey is calling for the same thing for educators.
One of the measures of AchieveNJ, the proposed system — and the one that has received the most press attention — is the Student Growth Percentile (SGP) score. The SGP is a measure of how a teacher’s students have grown on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK) in comparison to those statewide who are most like them academically. As an eighth-grade language arts teacher, I am one of those teachers who will receive an SGP rating. Personally, I am very curious to see my score, and I know that it is going to give me valuable data about the students I teach and my impact on their learning.
At a recent meeting of the Evaluation Pilot Advisory Committee (EPAC), the group of educators that advises the Department of Education, Dan Hart, Ph.D. from Rutgers University-Camden, showed how the relationship between teacher observations and SGP scores in a pilot district can be used. Educators can use this data to more clearly identify teachers who need support and recognize those who are doing an outstanding job.
However, just as we as teachers would never judge our students based on one test score at the end of one year, SGPs also only form one part of the evaluation system. Student Growth Objectives (SGOs) will be used as an additional measurement of student learning. SGOs are academic goals that teachers set for their own students based on those students’ knowledge at the start of the year. Many teachers are already doing much of what goes into producing an SGO: working in collaborative groups to address questions surrounding student achievement, using high-quality assessments, differentiating instruction and setting goals based on student readiness, and teaching a curriculum aligned to state standards. The SGO process formalizes this work and allows all teachers to be recognized for the growth of their students.
A third measure within AchieveNJ, classroom observations, is the one most familiar to teachers. Now everyone will be observed at least three times a year, a change that should lead to more frequent and productive professional conversations between teachers and their evaluators. William Firestone, Ph.D. of Rutgers University (the external pilot evaluator), recently acknowledged the importance of training teachers and evaluators on the evaluation instrument and the time it takes to do this thoroughly.
This was one of the key lessons learned early on by EPAC and led to the recommendation to delay full implementation of the evaluation system by a year: 2012-2013 was scheduled in the tenure reform law as a capacity-building year for districts to choose, train in, and practice using a teacher practice instrument. School districts that have taken advantage of this time will be in good shape come fall.
AchieveNJ has not been created in a vacuum. In fact, educators like me have played an integral role in the development of the system, including the push to delay full implementation by a year. As a member of EPAC for the past two years, my responsibilities have included reading research studies on teacher evaluation programs around the country, learning about evaluation tools and ways to manage data, and collaborating with educators from pilot districts. From the very beginning, the message was clear: improving the process of teacher evaluation in New Jersey will improve student achievement. I am hopeful that AchieveNJ will have the desired effect.
We have a lot to be proud of as educators in New Jersey, but a commitment to lifelong learning and professional growth should be at the center of the teaching profession. AchieveNJ helps to move it in this direction. This is about giving educators the opportunity to be the best they can be — supported, celebrated, and able to grow. And ultimately, this is about the kids — and giving them the best we have to offer.