It's still very early days for New Jersey's controversial teacher evaluation system -- now in limited pilot projects across the state -- but reports from the front lines are starting to filter in.
Most of the feedback from teachers and administrators has been positive. Both relish the renewed focus on what's happening in the classroom and their renewed dialogue, at least that's the upshot of the latest NJ Spotlight Roundtable, held this past weekend.
Carol Boehm, a music teacher for 10 years in Red Bank Borough, said the pilot's focus so far on classroom observations had spurred valuable conversations about the craft of teaching.
"Anyone who hears the word change, anyone is going to be a little scared and apprehensive," she said. "But once we started going through the process and the training, we really understood the value of it.
"We have come around and understood how important it is and how much more important is the open dialogue we have been able to have," Boehm added.
But at least one administrator, who values the opportunities offered by the new program, spoke openly about the heavy demand it puts on his time.
Brian Gismondi, principal of West Deptford High School, said he now directly evaluates 22 teachers, with each evaluation and its pre- and post-conferences taking considerably more attention.
"It is busy, I'm not going to lie to you. My day has changed and my day as an instructional leader has changed," he said.
"You have to run your building, manage your building, the paperwork, the parent phone calls," he said.
"It's not just evaluation. Most of my day now I spend in classrooms with teachers, talking with them. Not that it isn't worthwhile, but you need to change what you are doing and how you do it. I have pushed myself to a different limit than I ever had to," he added.
And one teacher, Tanya Tenturier of Elizabeth's Terence C. Reilly School, who also gave many aspects of the pilot high marks, said the state tests at the end of the year leave her uneasy.
"Honestly I am not sure the point of it all." she said. "My students are demonstrating on a daily basis that they are capable and what their strengths and weaknesses are, I'm not about the big culmination at the end of the year."
NJ Spotlight's Roundtable on the state's new teacher evaluation system brought together teachers and administrators from three of the pilot districts, as well as Robert Fisicaro the manager of the pilot for the state Department of Education, and Peter Shulman, the state assistant commissioner of education whose office is spearheading the pilot and the policy that will come out of it.
The Saturday morning event took place before an audience of more than 100 educators, advocates, and others at the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association in Monroe.
Red Bank's Boehm was not the only one to stress the value of observation (essentially, the first phase of the new evaluation program).
Laura Morana, the superintendent in Red Bank, conducted Boehm's first observation and said she, too, gained a great deal.
"We have had to do a great deal of learning in a short period of time, at all levels, including myself," she said.
"It's really allowing the teacher and the evaluator to have a meaningful discussion about teaching and learning, and the next steps."
Gismondi who discussed the additional hours the new observations were adding to his day also said the pilot has led to a whole change in the professional climate in his building.
"We're going through a culture change for the first time in my history there," he said of his dozen years as an administrator. "We are having conversations that are in depth to education and to resources and to what is happening in the classroom.
"Not just once in a while and during evaluation but it's happening all the time," he said. "That's the culture change. Administration conversations have changed, teacher conversations have changed."
Tenturier, a second year math teacher, also said the meetings with administrators to discuss lessons ahead of time are extremely valuable.
"I can show how I will differentiate instruction, I can communicate so much more through the current pilot," she said. "I feel in that way teachers are able to advocate for themselves and show more of the reflection."
Still, as the districts continue to hone the observation aspects of the evaluations, challenges have emerged as well, including the capacity of schools both in cost and time to develop reliable systems.
Morana in Red Bank said the cost is about $75,000 for her small district, much of it in training and time, but it's not just financial resources.
"How do we go about completing those evaluations, two for tenured teachers, three for non-tenured, in a way that is a comprehensive manner without rushing through the process?" she said.
Robert Fisicaro, both manager of the pilot and former elementary school principal, said the resources to complete quality training are vital.
Panelists repeatedly said the training was critical in building a sense of trust with supervisors and an assurance everyone is looking at the same things.
"The importance of the training cannot be overstated," Fisicaro said. "Teachers have to have a clear picture of the criteria to which they are evaluated. "
Assistant commissioner Shulman acknowledged that the capacity issues -- such as those Gismondi discussed -- are not just at the local level.
"Capacity is an issue, a significant challenge from Trenton down to the classroom to make this work," he said.
"This has to be woven into the fabric of what you are doing," he said. "It does take time and resources, and when looking at the prioritizing in the schools, this is a difficult thing to do."
The toughest debate came down to using student performance measures in evaluating teachers. While it is months away from being applied in the pilot districts and schools, the teachers on the panel were not averse to it. The state's system will use a complex formula that weighs student progress against their peers.
Boehm as a music teacher does not see her students take a state test and said she has begun with other music teachers in the district to develop their own.
"I'm actually a little excited about this," she said, explaining new assessments in playing the recorder. "This is our opportunity to show that we have standards we want to meet, and be able to show that are students are meeting those standards."
The state test, on the other hand, is already a central presence in Tenturier's job as a math teacher in Elizabeth, for good or ill.
"The first thing I get as a teacher is a breakdown of where they scored the highest and where they scored the lowest," she said. "I pre-assess, I post-assess, I assess the assessments."
Shulman tried to downplay the weight of any single student measure, saying the test scores would be significant but just one component of the overall evaluation. He said the use of student scores for teacher evaluation remained an "emerging field" in both policy and research. But he nonetheless stood by the scores as an important and objective measure that needed to be considered.
"We believe in having a common measuring stick," he said directly to Tenturier. "And for all the great work that you do, we can't be sure every educator is doing that."
Shulman repeatedly stressed that the state was listening to the concerns and had already extended the timeline for the pilot into next year, when up to 30 districts will be included. (The pilots are currently running in 10 districts and 19 additional schools.)
"For some we are moving too fast, and for others not fast enough," he said.