He’s the Answer Man for State’s New Teacher Evaluation Framework

John Mooney | September 18, 2013 | Education
Paul Palek spends his days -- and evenings -- fielding questions from concerned teachers and trying to quell anxieties

State education official Paul Palek taking individual teacher's questions on new evaluation system.
The hands shot up as soon as Paul Palek asked for questions. How would this affect them? What about their individual classes? When would they know how they rate?

It’s all in a day’s work for Palek, who travels the northern part of the state as the Department of Education’s representative, talking with teachers about the new evaluation system.

Last night, he was in West Orange where about 50 teachers listened intently in the auditorium of the Liberty Middle School. Earlier in the day, he had visited two other districts. Today, it will be another three.

“I’m on the road all the time,” he said.

Last night’s meeting drew teachers from Newark to Boonton, eager to dig into the details of AchieveNJ, the statewide system that will evaluate them using a host of new factors — including classroom observations and a mix of student performance measures — and rate them from “ineffective” to “highly effective.”

It can be a frightening time for teachers, although Palek said he would prefer the word “anxious.”

“I don’t use the term ‘fear’, I use the term ‘anxiety’,” said Palek, an implementation officer with the state DOE and a former top school administrator in Lenape and Cranford.

“There are basically two factors: one is the unknown, and secondly we are dealing with a lack of understanding of the complexity of the entire system,” he said. “As they hear more and more of us speak to them about it, I think they will come to grips with it, I really do.”

“I think they understand it, by and large, but [I’m] not sure they understand the finer components,” he added.

Last night’s session was all about the finer points, as Palek went through an extensive PowerPoint presentation, with a few editorial comments as to what was working so far and where they could expect some bumps.

For instance, he said the political focus on solely test scores for the minority of teachers affected was being overplayed, saying it was much more about how students progress in both the state’s tests and other performance measures.

He said the use of “student growth objectives” that look at more holistic measures are among the changes that should be embraced by teachers.

“They are the little treasure in this process,” he said. “You are the ones in control of this.”

And considerable time was spent on the classroom observation piece that will represent 55 percent of teacher’s grades, how and when they will be conducted, how many observers will be required, how the observers will be trained. Each district chose different instruments as the templates for the process, but Palek said it will still be about how the students perform.

“But no matter what instrument you choose, if you are going to be ‘highly effective,’ it will be about how your students react in a specific class,” Palek said.

Nevertheless, the questions kept coming.

Special education teachers asked if they would be judged on the progress of general education classes that they share with other teachers, and how much so. (To be determined by the districts, Palek said.)

What about others who teach different levels of a subject, what classes will carry the most weight? (Probably a mix of all of them, although that is up to the teachers and the districts to determine, Palek said.)

Still, when Palek asked the group to jot down on index cards separately their hopes and their anxieties about the new system, it wasn’t always clear which were which.

“I hope my students will show excellent growth,” said one teacher.

“I hope that the whole system will be done fairly,” another said.

“I fear it will create an overly competitive atmosphere,” said yet another.

Afterward, a few teachers spoke about their own uncertainties. None of them said they were dead set against the new accountability standards, but they still had plenty of questions. (None of them would give their names, although they indicated where and what they teach.)

“The information has been coming in slow,” said one language arts teacher from Glen Ridge. “You just want to know concrete examples to what you can apply to your own situations. Those are the [questions] we are begging to ask.”

“It’s not so much nervous,” he added. “It’s new, and I want to do it well. The goals are still the same, the kids are still the best part, and I want to make sure that this is not in the way and can help.”

Another language arts teacher from West Milford said the goals of the new system are laudable, but she’s conflicted about how it is all coming down at once.

“Teachers are overwhelmed, and I think some are so overwhelmed they are losing sight of the goals,” she said. “I get what the goals are, I understand what the hope is in doing this. But I think if only teachers have the chance to breathe and understand all that.

“There are so many ‘ifs’, and they are rushing to make it stick,” the she continued. “As much as we should be allowed to make adjustments, [the state] should be encouraged to make adjustments, too.”