State BOE Meeting Mirrors Statehouse Concerns About Teacher Evaluations

John Mooney | July 10, 2014 | Education
Quiet meeting in July listens to more than three-dozen educators concerned about new statewide testing system

NJEA Lapel Lable
As the stop-and-start drama continues in the Statehouse, the State Board of Education just a mile away got an earful yesterday about the New Jersey’s new teacher evaluation system.

The board ostensibly was hosting public testimony on some nominal changes to administrative code, but from more than three dozen speakers, the prevailing theme was the precarious state of the evaluation system rolled out in earnest this year.

Individual teachers spoke to the challenges of being evaluated by a system in which administrators — and teachers themselves — have barely any training.

Advocates from several of the big education groups, including the state’s largest teachers union, once again asked for the state to slow down.

“I ask why the rush to put this process into place, when we don’t even know how many procedural issues there are,” said Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association.

“Anything worth doing is worth doing right,” he said. “I look forward to working with the board and the department to make sure we do it right.”

The words may have been prescient, as Statehouse talks — including those involving the NJEA itself — continued through yesterday, trying to arrive at a compromise as to how heavily the results of the new nationwide testing would weigh in teacher evaluations.

A bill poised to be acted on by the state Senate today that would delay the impact of the online PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests was again tabled late yesterday — for the third time.

Its chief sponsor said he agreed to hold the bill to give more time for the Christie administration and the Legislature’s Democratic leadership to come up with a deal that would address the heightening concerns, likely with a high-level review of state testing as a whole and a phase-in on the use of the tests.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May), the primary sponsor of the Senate bill, said the alternative was passing a bill that would surely be vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, and unlikely to have enough votes to override.

“There have been fruitful discussions between the Senate majority staff and the administration,” he said late yesterday. “Everyone said that the discussions were moving in the right direction.”

The depth of the problems that have spurred the concerns were apparent at the state board meeting, where a usually sleepy session in July drew dozens of members of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that had made the meeting the subject of one of its “lobby day” campaigns.

Wearing stickers provided by the NJEA that read “Get It Right,” the educators came with a variety of personal anecdotes about the new evaluation system and the testing attached to it.

Angelina Carione, a fifth-grade teacher in the Buena Regional school system, implored board members not to put themselves in teachers’ shoes but that of students, some of whom she said were literally sick or in tears from the pressure of state tests.

‘The demands of this testing culture has robbed students of their love of learning and stolen teachers’ ability to be creative,” she said. “Quickly implemented laws and policies are ruining education for a generation of children.”

Carione described one testing experience faced by her students:

“Sit down, read the fifth-grade [writing test’s] prompt, think of an idea, write a succinct narrative that encompasses all story elements, including character development, setting, plot line, figurative language, dialogue, proper grammar, then revise and edit it — all in 30 minutes flat.”

Not everyone at the meeting was opposed to the state’s current policy. Some advocacy groups pressed the administration not to back off its commitment to the new Common Core State Standards and the PARCC testing that will be aligned with it, starting in 2015.

Janellen Duffy, executive director of JerseyCAN, a pro-reform advocacy group co-chaired by former Gov. Thomas Kean, said that the state had shown its ability to be flexible to the challenges of the new testing. She cited how the state had already reduced the weight of testing on teacher evaluations.

“Judging by this track record, it has shown it has the ability to assess the landscape, get feedback from the field, and indeed adjust components of the teacher evaluation system,” she said.

Nonetheless, the administration’s hand may be forced before that, as the meeting was abuzz with speculation as to the different discussions going on. When one board member announced that Van Drew had already agreed to hold his bill, the tenor of the room changed.

But in a telephone interview, Van Drew wasn’t holding his breath as to what comes next. He was hopeful about a compromise, and said the Legislature would come back to act this summer if the administration didn’t.

Still, when asked how long this back and forth could go on, he didn’t have a best estimate: “You tell me.”