Two of New Jersey’s Top Public School District Superintendents Talk Shop

Regional superintendents of the year open up about Common Core, PARCC, teacher evaluations, and removing ineffective staff

Scott McCartney (left) of the Egg Harbor school district and Tim Purnell of Somerville -- both have been recognized as regional superintendents of the year.
New Jersey school leaders were in Trenton last Thursday for one of the final legislative sessions of the school year, lobbying their representatives and meeting with colleagues to identify strategies for many of the issues facing public education.

NJ Spotlight sat down with two superintendents, Tim Purnell of Somerville and Scott McCartney of Egg Harbor, who recently were recognized by their peers as among the state’s best.

Each won regional superintendent of the year for 2014-2015 from the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, and Purnell was named statewide superintendent of the year.

The meeting came a week after Gov. Chris Christie pulled the state’s support of the Common Core State Standards, while retaining its associated tests, the PARCC assessments. Funding issues are also on everyone’s mind, as are the continued roll-out of teacher evaluations and tenure reforms.

All were discussed, and the following are excerpts of the conversation:

Question: What is the big issue from the perspective of superintendents as the school year closes?

Purnell: I would guess one is where are we headed with standards in terms of the Common Core. We are going to continue to use PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), and we want the assessments to match what we teach. And there are elements of the Common Core that I liked, and I would hope they would consider these as we roll out our own unique standards in New Jersey.

Q: What was your reaction when you heard the governor’s announcement?

Purnell: We were shocked. The community was shocked. We had had a lot of informational sessions throughout [Somerset] county, and we were proceeding with its implementation.

McCartney: We were shocked but not shocked. In terms of what we are facing as educators, in a larger sense, it is that change process, and what I see with all the challenges we are facing, it is just the pace and the rate of change and the volume of change. It has created some uncertainty, and concerns about sustainability.

With Common Core and PARCC as specific examples, as administrators we had put in a ton of time to make those paradigm shifts, which are hard.

Q: Had there been a ton of debate over Common Core?

McCartney: Most of it was around the PARCC. Of the debate I heard on Common Core, most of it was ill-informed, and once you pushed people on it, most couldn’t point to the evidence. And for teachers, it was just coming to the understanding of what we had been asking for a long time in terms of greater depth.

We had moved people forward, and on some level, the [governor’s] announcement undermines that, or at least creates some concern with our staff, now wondering why they should do anything. I had textbooks on my budget for next year, and I have board and community members wondering why we should buy these because they are aligned to the standards. Would it be a waste of hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Q: Are you still proceeding with the purchase?

McCartney:: I am.

Purnell: I haven’t sent any of our textbooks back yet. We are staying the course right now, and I’m sure the department will provide further direction.

McCartney: You almost have to stay the course. It is still the PARCC assessments, and that’s the end of the line. You have to stay with the standards that meet the end. That’s important.

[related]Q: How was your experience with PARCC?

Purnell: We fared very well with PARCC. I look at the difficulties with technology, and supporting the initiative. We had prepared ahead of time, and Somerville was a bit of an aberration, in that we had piloted it for two years. We knew what to expect.

McCartney: We had only piloted it one year, and one grade. And the test itself went well, the technology, the support was there, the program worked, the children didn’t seem to have any trouble with it.

Where we struggled was in the public sentiment, and we did have a pretty vocal group of dissenters around the PARCC test and the refusals. While we don’t have official numbers, we’re pretty sure to be below the 95 percent.

Again, it was a lot of misinformation and a lot of rhetoric that confused a lot of people.

Q: Does it concern you how the refusals will impact results?

McCartney: Did the refusals affect the students taking the tests? It certainly does.

Purnell: The value-add is at the end, and how we are going to use the results to guide instruction. Until we can do that, until we make it a requirement for high school, that will be the point where we can truly steer the ship.

Q: What about the impact on teacher evaluations, where student tests scores were a portion of the ratings for certain language arts and math teachers? The state just released a report that 97 percent of teachers were found effective or better. How do you think the system has worked?

McCartney: I think it generated a lot of fear and uncertainty for staff, but I do think in the end it came out largely the same. If 97 percent of my staff were effective before, they are still now.

Q: Are you better for it or did we go through a lot of angst to end at the same place?

McCartney: I personally think we did go through a lot of angst to get to the same place, but I did see an increase in the conversation, and it did generate more discussion around teacher performance and evaluation.

Q: Does it give you the tools to deal with ineffective teachers?

Purnell: That’s not tried and true yet. We’ve had the reversals [in more than a dozen Newark cases], so we’re not sure yet how that will play out. That creates an uncertainty. Will there be a point where we can remove an ineffective teacher? We don’t know. In a year from now, we maybe will be able to answer that question.