Maybe it was the pent-up energy from the year off due to Hurricane Sandy. The New Jersey Education Association's annual convention came back yesterday in full force with capacity-crowd workshops, a busy exhibition hall, and plenty of questions about coming changes in how teachers do their jobs.
The nation’s largest state convention for teachers drew more than 30,000 educators to the Atlantic City Convention Center, according to the union, which said it the event’s biggest turnout in at least a decade.
The exhibition hall was often near gridlock, and many workshops were turning away attendees for lack of space -- those dealing with coming mandates regarding teacher evaluation and new standards and testing were especially sought after.
One of the hottest tickets was a session led by Charlotte Danielson, the architect of a teacher-evaluation model being used in a majority of New Jersey school districts as part of the state’s new tenure-reform law, which aims to hold teachers more accountable for student performance.
Danielson, based in Princeton, addressed more than 300 teachers grappling with the new system, which standardizes how they are observed in the classroom.
With good humor and plenty of asides, Danielson stressed the importance of it being a collaborative effort and several times recognized the challenges that will come in the first year.
But she also faced questions to how her system of specific benchmarks can be applied to all educators, ranging from classroom teachers to those working with special-education students both in and outside the regular classroom.
It is a particularly critical time in the rollout of the new evaluation system, as districts must have student-performance measures in place by Nov. 15 and with new information coming out this week with specifics on how student test scores will apply.
State officials, several of whom will be at the convention today, said yesterday they realize the transition has had its bumpy moments, but said they remain confident that teachers and administrators are working together.
“These are reasonable concerns, and not ones we haven’t heard before,” said Peter Shulman, the state’s assistant education commissioner, who is overseeing the new evaluation system.
But he said there has also been significant progress made in many districts, and that the state is sticking to its deadlines, many of which were written into the new tenure law.
“They were dictated by a state law that was unanimously approved by the Legislature,” Shulman said.
Nonetheless, Shulman – one of those expected to be on hand today with state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf – vowed he would continue to work with the NJEA and its members to make the new system succeed.
“I think we have had a collegial relationship with the field, and been open to their concerns and questions,” he said. “That will not change.”
Such collegiality wasn’t so apparent in another session yesterday before members of the State Board of Education. Teachers – many of them union leaders -- lined up to criticize a variety of policies that are coming their way under the Christie administration.
Beyond the new rules for teacher evaluation, other big issues including implementation of the new Common Core State Standards, new online testing, the Camden school takeover by the state, and even the decrepit condition of Trenton High School were all on the list.
Many teachers voiced frustration with the implementation of the various requirements, but also criticized the state board’s acquiescence.
“My members want to know, after numerous letters sent to the board, do you hear them?” said Heidi Olson, president of the teachers union in Hopewell Township. “Why do they not feel they have been heard and respected? All their nightmares are coming true, times ten.”
The three board members on hand – including the president and vice president but less than one-third of the full board – said they have heard the teachers’ concerns and were trying to address them with the state education department.
“Those letters are important to us,” said Arcelio Aponte, the state board’s president. “We bring these topics into meetings, and I must say that on many occasions, our letters have yielded better regulations.”
Besides the gathering of teachers, the convention was also the first chance for the NJEA to appraise the impact of this week’s election, which saw the union’s frequent nemesis, Gov. Chris Christie, easily win reelection over Democratic challenger Barbara Buono, whom the union endorsed and backed heavily.
In an interview, NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer was philosophical about the defeat.
The NJEA could hardly claim full victory, he acknowledged, despite spending upwards of $13 million on behalf of Democratic candidates that included Buono as well as incumbents in a half-dozen contested legislative races.
But he said the NJEA had at least helped protect the Democratic majority in the state Senate and Assembly.
“We were shooting for the stars, and we got the moon,” Steinhauer said in the interview. “We had three goals: the governor, a pro-education Senate, a pro-education Assembly. We didn’t get the governor, but we got two out of three.”
An interesting side story at the annual convention came from a school district where teachers are not even members of the NJEA.
More than 1,000 Newark teachers traveled down to Atlantic City, despite the fact that its Newark Teachers Union is part of the American Federation of Teachers, which is a separate union from the NJEA and its parent National Education Association (NEA).
Under state law, all teachers are entitled to attend the convention, and Newark teachers have been attending for years.
But this year’s showing apparently proved to be news to officials in Newark’s state-run district, which was forced to suddenly close schools yesterday and today due to the exodus of teachers.
Union leaders and district officials went back-and-forth yesterday over who was to blame. The district said the union had approved a school calendar back in the summer that did not include the days off for the convention. The union’s leaders maintained they had warned the administration that teachers would be attending nonetheless.