Day of Judgment Draws Near for New Jersey’s New Teacher-Evaluation System

Amid debate during first year of implementation, key juncture will be reached soon when teachers get their individual ratings

teacher and apple
There’s been plenty of debate about the effectiveness of New Jersey’s new teacher-evaluation system during its first year. But the bottom-line verdict is likely to come in a few months, when final performance ratings are placed next to individual teachers’ names.

Assistant Education Commissioner Peter Shulman, the Christie administration’s lead official overseeing the evaluation system, said in an interview Friday that the individual ratings process remains on schedule, with the last of the teachers slated to receive their grades — ranging from “ineffective” to “highly effective” – in early 2015.

The majority of teachers received their ratings at the end of the school year, with the remaining grades coming for the roughly 15-20 percent who are being partially evaluated by their students’ results on the state’s math and language arts tests taken in the spring.

Acknowledging the angst being expressed by New Jersey educators, Shulman said he remains convinced that teachers will fare better than they might expect.

“Some of the apprehension will be mitigated when the final ratings come out,” Shulman said Friday. “I can’t give you specific numbers, but my instincts have always been that New Jersey has some of the best teachers in the country, and the ratings will bear that out.”

The wild card for these teachers will be new performance measures that quantify how their students progressed – or didn’t – on state tests. Final details of those measurements, known as student growth percentiles (SGPs), have yet to be supplied to school districts, although the student scores are back for districts as a whole. Those measures will account for 10 percent of the final ratings in the first year, and 20 percent in the second.

“We are aiming for early 2015, and hoping in January to produce SGPs in preliminary format to our districts,” Shulman said.

There have been questions about other variables in the new teacher-evaluations equation, and Shulman was responding generally to continuing concerns about the launch of the statewide requirements under the new teacher-tenure law.

Two weeks ago, the state Department of Education issued its first-year report on the new requirements. Results were mixed, with some districts closely following both the letter and spirit of the law and other districts still with deficiencies.

In response, the state’s leading education groups said the process continues to be a struggle for districts and their teachers, and they again raised concerns about whether the state is moving too far, too fast, on the new evaluations.

Shulman on Friday did not discount those concerns, acknowledging that implementation continues to be difficult and inconsistent in many districts.

A big issue has been the use of new student measures known as student growth objectives (SGOs), which teachers and their supervisors are supposed to agree upon, using existing assessments.

But leaders of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, have said too many cases have seen supervisors imposing the SGOs on teachers.

Shulman on Friday agreed there is room for improvement in that area.

“To us, the goal-setting process is as important as the goal attainment,” he said. “We want to make sure that the teachers are working with administrators to develop those goals together.

“I’m not saying we don’t have dozens if not hundreds of districts where it is going well, but it is an area we can improve upon.”

Shulman also said he agrees with principals and supervisors who contend that the new requirements are running up against their capacity to complete the work, which requires time-consuming meetings with teachers and extensive documentation of the basis for their performance reviews.

The assistant commissioner did not rule out there could be some changes in the state’s regulations, perhaps easing some of the most detailed requirements, but said that won’t happen this year.

One possible change might be to expand the use of waivers for districts that are unable to meet the precise number of observations or conferences required. More than 70 districts last year applied for – and for the most part received — such waivers.

“We are not looking to change the regulatory process this year, but as we see different trends, that will inform prospective regulatory changes taken before the state board,” Shulman said.

When asked if he envisioned changes, Shulman said: “We are committed to continued improvement, so I would absolutely hope we are making some changes and continuing to improve the system.”