Newark School District, Teachers Union Take Stock after Pact’s First Year

John Mooney | September 24, 2013 | Education
Bonuses awarded to those who did stellar work but questions remain about how to deal with those rated as less effective

Credit: Howard Best/NPS
Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso and Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson, seen signing a much-discussed teachers contract last year.
When it was signed almost a year ago, Newark’s new teacher contract was touted as a national model for rewarding strong teachers and for improving — or in some cases, getting rid of — weaker ones.

Especially noteworthy was that it was all done with the teachers union as a key and willing partner.

Now, after its first year, the rewards have come in, with 190 teachers in all receiving performance bonuses up to $12,500 for being deemed “highly effective.”

But the trickier piece has been dealing with the bottom of the scale, with 20 percent of teachers found to be partially effective or ineffective. And, at least in public, the partnership between the district and the union has seen some fraying over what comes next, to say the least.

“It’s a real mess,” said Joseph Del Grosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union, which signed the contract a year ago but is now questioning how it was implemented.

Some of this was to be expected, and it surely comes with its share of posturing — on both sides. Still, by all accounts, implementing the contract was always going to be the hardest part of an agreement that was a big departure from not just the Newark district’s history, but that of virtually every district in the state.

Signed off on by Gov. Chris Christie on one side and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on the other, the contract for the state-run district called for the New Jersey’s first large-scale performance bonuses for top teachers.

It also included an unprecedented peer review and “validation” component, giving teachers a role in the evaluation of fellow teachers and the development of plans for how they could improve.

The bonuses were announced with considerable fanfare last month, with the district saying $1.3 million in all went to the top-rung teachers, with the maximum of $12,500 going to those teaching both in high-need schools and in high-need subjects like math and science.

“Together, with one voice, we are backing our hard-working teachers across the district,” Anderson said in the announcement, “and saying that greatness is not only something to aspire to but something that will now be rewarded.”

Del Grosso cheered, too, in joining the announcement: “The NTU is proud to have negotiated with the district a breakthrough contract and congratulates the 190 teachers who received their well-deserved merit bonuses.”

But tensions have risen since then over how to deal with the other end of the spectrum – teachers who didn’t do so well.

This month, the district released the final breakdowns of how those evaluations turned out for the district’s roughly 3,200 teachers:

  • Highly effective — 11 percent
  • Effective — 69 percent
  • Partially effective — 16 percent
  • Ineffective — 4 percent
  • By Anderson’s account, the breakdowns represent an improvement in gauging what the district needs.

    “The evaluation was sobering,” the superintendent said yesterday in an email. “It shows we need more great teachers in Newark.”

    She said the percentage of “highly effective” teachers had actually dropped from the year before, when the district piloted the system, and the percentage of teachers who were rated “partially effective” or “ineffective” increased.

    Even so, she said, the results are still better than she would have assumed after her two years in the district.

    “Based on the hundreds of community and classroom visits I have made in the last year and the new low achievement outcomes, these ratings seem high,” she wrote, adding there would be more training of principals and other supervisors to provide more consistent guidelines.

    Others added that the evaluation system was a good start in improving on evaluation systems that in most districts, Newark included, had given 95 percent or better of teachers positive ratings.

    “Based on the results we have seen around the country, these results are very encouraging,” said Daniel Weisberg, executive vice president of The New Teacher Project, a Brooklyn-based reform group consulting in Newark.

    He said other states and school districts implementing such systems have still seen what he considers inflated ratings, but that Newark and Anderson appear to be breaking the cycle. ‘These provide for a very meaningful distinction from great to good, from good to fair, and from fair to poor,” he said.

    But that’s where the union has taken exception, with Del Grosso saying yesterday in an interview that implementation of the new evaluation system has been fraught with problems. A big proponent of the peer system, he said evaluations were too often conducted without teachers as partners and “validators.”

    A district-wide committee that is supposed to review the evaluations has been at a “standstill,” he said, because the district hasn’t provided necessary information.

    For example, Del Grosso has asked for the criteria used for the “partially proficient” teachers, some of whom nevertheless won “step” raises at the superintendent’s discretion. He said roughly 500 teachers had their step raises withheld – the pay hikes have been routinely given out for each additional year of job experience, while about 100 teachers received the salary increases.

    The union has also asked for the names of teachers who received “ineffective” ratings so it can review with them their evaluations, but Del Grosso said the district has not been forthcoming. The teachers have an opportunity to appeal the ratings, but need to do so within 90 days.

    “It is not fair to have an evaluation system that has so many inconsistencies,” he said. “I don’t think this is how the governor envisioned how this would be implemented. It’s not how I envisioned it.”

    Some of the toughest numbers have shown up in the district’s pool of excess teachers, known as “educators without placement” (EWP). These are teacher forced out of the classroom due to dropping enrollment who have not been picked up by other schools. Ultimately, they have found new jobs, but typically in substitute or other support roles.

    The following is the breakdown of teacher ratings for those EWP teachers, according to the district. The district did not provide a total number of such teachers, but last year it was reported to be roughly 200 teachers. The pool was expected to more than double this year.

  • Highly effective — 2%
  • Effective — 48%
  • Partially effective — 30%
  • Ineffective — 20%
  • For those who did evaluate well, Anderson said the district has made a special effort to have them interviewed for classroom slots. But she said the rest of the breakdown was telling.

    “More than double of the EWPs are rated less than effective than those not in the EWPs pool,” Anderson said in the email. “Across the board, they are a far less effective group of teachers.”

    But the union contended that the EWP evaluations were especially concerning, saying that many of the teachers were not in roles that could be fairly evaluated. Del Grosso said he heard of several instances where such teachers were being forced to teach outside their subject areas.

    “A math teacher teaching science, how do you evaluate someone like that who is not even in the area they are certified to teach?” he asked.

    Anderson’s office did not respond to the union’s specific questions yesterday, but the superintendent said the evaluations of these teachers remain a particular challenge.

    “In some cases, these ratings were inflated because of an inconvenient truth: in order to rate them effectively, they have to be teaching – and some principals do not want to have them teaching due to poor quality,” Anderson wrote.