NJ Teacher Evaluations Are: a) Mostly a Success b) Still Need Work c) Both

John Mooney | November 26, 2014 | Education
How was the first year of New Jersey’s new teacher evaluation system? Depends on whom you ask

There’s hardly consensus as to how well New Jersey’s teacher evaluation system worked in its first year — and no more agreement about how the second year will stack up.

The state Department of Education last week released a mostly positive report on the initial year of the system as dictated under the TEACHNJ tenure reform law, citing some challenges but praising the progress in meeting requirements for additional observations and goal setting for teachers.

But the state’s leading education groups have since chimed in with a more critical view.

For the state’s dominant teachers union, the complaint has been about collaboration — or what they say is its lack — in developing the student performance measures that are central in the evaluations.

The state’s and principals and supervisors group raised issues about the capacity of school leaders to complete the required evaluations properly and efficiently. And it joined the state’s superintendents association in questioning why there still hasn’t been a progress report on the new evaluation system for principals and supervisors.

“Interestingly, there is no report yet about administrator evaluation, which is where many believed the implementation would have been most appropriate to begin prior to teacher evaluation,” said Richard Bozza, director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

The comments came after the state Department of Education released its first-year report on new requirements that local school districts choose and follow state-mandated models for evaluating teachers.

The report offered a mixed grade. For instance, it said that schools had significantly increased the number of classroom observations of teachers, but also raised some questions of the rigor of those observations.

It said that 70 percent of student measures known as “student growth objectives” (SGOs) were satisfactory, but that left 30 percent that weren’t.

For teachers and others in the field, the SGOs have been a particular point of concern. Used for virtually every teacher, SGOs are mutually agreed-upon goals for teachers in measuring how their students are doing, whether it’s through classroom assessments or things like attendance or discipline. (These are distinct from “student growth percentiles,” which map student progress on state tests to language arts and math teachers.)

Yet while the state said a majority of the SGOs that it reviewed were high quality, leaders of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, said they have been problematic from the start.

Michael Cohan, the director of professional development for the NJEA, said he supported the concept of SGOs, but said they have been poorly applied and led to more dictates than collaboration.

“Rather than getting really engaged in good conversations, it has been administrators saying teachers have to get this or that score fixed, or that certain deadlines need to be met,” he said.

Richard Wilson, an NJEA associate director, said he has led training in SGOs for teachers across the state and hears a common complaint that in the rush to put the system in place, supervisors are telling teachers their goals.

“Because there has been so much so fast, we have a lot of situations where they are set at the department or principal level,” he said. “But it is in the collaboration where the power of the SGOs comes from.”

The head of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association contested any claims that her members were dictating such goals for teachers, but she acknowledged the process has no doubt been a strain on supervisors trying to keep up with the state’s mandates and that there’s a “learning curve” in getting it right.

“A big concern has been the capacity issue, and I’m not sure it has yet been addressed,” said Patricia Wright, executive director of the NJPSA.

“The state’s report said there have been 180,000 additional observations, but in order to do that right, there also has to be the right number of conferences with teachers and the necessary feedback.

“One of the resources needed is just time,” she said for her members. “Time is needed for collaborative learning, for building PLCs (professional learning communities) among teachers in schools.”

Wright said her association recently completed a survey of its members after the first year and found some improvement in the second year.

“I think the numbers are getting more positive in terms of what they feel about (the system),” she said. “But there are still real capacity and time issues.”