Back to School: Teachers Frustrated, Nervous about New Evaluation System Set to Take Effect This Fall
Jessica Calefati | The Star-Ledger
HOPEWELL— Heidi Olson has been teaching special education students for 27 years. Every summer, she says, ends pretty much the same way: In eager anticipation to get back to work.
Fresh faces fill the halls, colorful bulletin boards line the walls and there are new challenges.
But this year it’s a little different.
The 49-year-old Hopewell Elementary School teacher is frustrated, confused and just plain nervous.
When school starts this week for Olson and thousands of other teachers, they will be judged under a tough new set of rules that evaluate teachers based on student performance, including, for the first time, standardized test scores.
"My evaluation has always been a valuable tool that helps me improve my teaching, but I have so many questions about how I’ll be assessed next year that no one can answer," Olson said.
The shift marks the first changes to the state’s teacher tenure law in a century, and educators whose evaluations don’t measure up in this new era for public schools will face serious consequences.
They’ll lose their tenure and possibly their jobs.
Superintendents and state education officials say districts are prepared for the shift, but the state’s largest teachers union has criticized the state for rushing to implement the changes.
"Many teachers have not yet been trained on this new system, and that’s causing a great deal of anxiety," said Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association. "We supported this bill, but we would rather take things slow and get this right. If we rush into this, it might not be successful."
Under the landmark tenure reform law Gov. Chris Christie signed last summer, districts had to revamp the way they observe teachers in the classroom, start judging them on student performance, and implement the changes by the start of the 2013-2014 school year.
For fourth- through eighth-grade teachers, standardized test scores will count for 35 percent of the rating; classroom observations aligned to new statewide standards will count for the rest, according to regulations released by the state Education Department earlier this year.
Teachers of other grades and subjects will follow a different evaluation rubric based solely on classroom observations and teachers’ ability to meet student growth objectives, such as improving the quality of essay writing.
According to the tenure law, teachers who receive the lowest evaluations on a four-tier scale will lose their tenure no matter how many years they’ve been teaching.
Secaucus Superintendent Robert Presuto said the frustration felt collectively by teachers across the state is normal and will diminish during the school year as they become more familiar with the new standards.
He would know.
Two years ago, Secaucus became one of 11 districts, including Elizabeth, Monroe and Alexandria, to win grants from the state to pilot the evaluation system. This year will be Secaucus’ third year in using the new standards that are brand new to so many other districts.
"Initially, people were upset," Presuto said. "They didn’t understand how the system would work and how the test score data would be used. They asked, "'Why are you doing this to us?'"
"But with lots of professional development and an open dialogue, we changed those perceptions," he said.
In spite of widespread fear that students of top teachers might get low test scores that skew their evaluations, Presuto said most educators who demonstrated effective teaching during classroom observations also boosted kids’ test scores at a desirable rate.
Even so, South Brunswick middle school teacher Susan Berkey said administrators looking to save money and "clean house" by laying off teachers with the highest salaries and most experience could use test scores against them unfairly.
State Education Department officials held conference calls and seminars across the state last year to educate teachers about the new law and allay their concerns. Assistant Education Commissioner Pete Schulman said those sessions will continue throughout the upcoming school year.
"This is a paradigm shift," Schulman said. "We expect teachers’ concerns to be mitigated by learning and doing. Those most aware of the new system’s intricacies seem to be doing the best."
Kenilworth Superintendent Scott Taylor said it’s tough to know how many teachers will receive low ratings that result in loss of tenure, but as he gears up for the school year he has tried to remind his staff that the new system is a reality they must embrace.
"I’m very cognizant of our need to take things slowly and carefully," Taylor said. "There has been some criticism of the law, but it’s here to stay. We have to make the best of it."