NJ Launching Tougher Teacher Evaluations

Leslie Brody | The Record

WOODLAND PARK, N.J. (AP) — After years of pressure from sources as varied as President Obama and Governor Christie, teachers in New Jersey will face more stringent evaluations than ever when schools open in the coming days.

The push to improve teacher quality through tougher evaluations has intensified across the country in response to widespread concern that too many American students lag far behind their competitors abroad.

If all goes as Trenton officials intend, school administrators will spend more time in classrooms, checking how well their teachers engage students and prod them to think analytically. Teachers will also be judged by their students' progress — not just on academic tests, but also in tasks like singing scales in music and doing sit-ups in gym.

Both Obama and Christie have expressed faith that changing the "drive-by" evaluations of the past, which blessed nearly everyone with a good rating, will create pressure for better instruction.

Many teachers, however, are leery. Their unions across the country have been adamant in arguing that one linchpin of new evaluations in many states — using test scores to isolate a teacher's impact on students' growth — has serious flaws in methodology. And many principals, who face more rigorous reviews themselves, wonder how they will find time to orchestrate more frequent, time-consuming classroom observations.

But like it or not, the New Jersey tenure law passed a year ago means these new evaluations will be more consequential because earning tenure and keeping it will be tied to getting good ratings.

Newark has gone a step further; a contract signed last year gives teachers raises only if they are rated "effective" or "highly effective," replacing automatic bumps for longevity. For the first time, 190 Newark teachers who got the best reviews or took on particularly hard jobs got bonuses last month worth $2,500 to $12,500. Paterson Superintendent Donnie W. Evans says he wants to start paying employees according to their performance as well, but the city teachers union is vehemently opposed.

"We have to make teaching and learning our highest priority," Bergenfield Superintendent Michael Kuchar told The Record (http://bit.ly/18ls9nt). His district has experimented with new evaluations the past two years in a New Jersey pilot project, and he said the new system statewide should shine a light on the best performers and help others get better. He said it's not intended as a "gotcha" for firing a small handful of incompetents.

"This is to move the wide range of mediocrity to the next level," he said.

In New Jersey, districts have some flexibility choosing their approach, but teachers are supposed to be watched in action by a principal or supervisor at least three times a year, with one surprise visit. That's a jump from the past, when tenured teachers, for example, often had just one formal observation a year, announced in advance.

Jonathon Regan, a social-studies teacher in Demarest, said those scheduled visits didn't lead to much valuable feedback.

"I would put together a circus with elephants, juggling and fireworks," he said. "I got an evaluation that said 'You were great.' What was the purpose? So I could have someone pat me on the back?"

This year several Bergen County districts, including Regan's, plan to give each teacher eight to 10 observations, with some visits lasting 10 minutes and others a full period. After each, a debriefing with the teacher is supposed to cover what went well and how to fix weaknesses. The goal is pushing principals back into the classroom as coaches — and cutting the time they spend on red tape, low-level discipline problems and supervising the lunchroom.

But some school leaders wonder where they will find the time for the extra work. Chris Kirkby, principal of two elementary schools in Demarest, estimates the time he spends on evaluations will quadruple this year. He has to review about 45 teachers and wonders how he will carve out an extra hour a day for doing so.

"I pride myself in being present for the kids and parents," he said. "I hope that's not what loses out."

For some teachers, quantifying the nuances of their craft is a nerve-wracking prospect. They hope imaginative lessons won't be sacrificed to satisfy observers who are scoring them on a scale of one to four on a range of specific categories, like clarity and use of technology.

"Being reduced to a number is threatening to teachers," said Jeannie Ryan, an instructional coach with the English department at the Northern Valley Regional High School District in northeastern Bergen County. "You don't want to miss a creative lesson because you are tied to a rubric."

The most controversial aspect of the new evaluations involves using students' results on standardized tests to rate teachers. The state has created a new measure, called a "student growth percentile," to reflect how much each child in Grades 4-8 progressed on annual tests in math and language arts.

The figure is calculated by comparing students statewide who started out with similar test-score histories and seeing who improved more. For example, if Johnny did better on the latest tests than children in his peer group, he is in a high-growth percentile. Furthermore, Johnny's teacher will get a high-growth score if her students fared better than their peers statewide.

For the teachers of tested subjects, this growth score will make up 30 percent of their evaluations. The New Jersey Education Association and other critics have protested fiercely; they dispute the state's new computer model for isolating a teacher's impact on a child's success and note that many outside factors come into play, like family poverty, private tutoring and a fever on test day. They also say competition for numerical ratings will hurt professional collaboration.

Some are suspicious of the motivation behind the push for data-heavy evaluations.

"We think the evaluation system is built to make people fail," said Peter Tirri, head of the Paterson Education Association.

Even those who support using test scores to measure teachers have trouble with the state's growth data, partly because it takes so long to arrive. Bergenfield officials have asked Trenton for permission to use their own version, instead. Superintendent Kuchar said his district can measure progress much more precisely using frequent online quizzes from a software vendor called Renaissance Learning. Results are immediate and can drive quick changes in teaching methods. By contrast, the state's growth scores become available more than six months after the May tests.

The state's data are "flawed with internal reliability issues," Kuchar said. The district's assessments "are more accurate."

For the first time, 15 percent of each teacher's rating will come from how well he attains a personal goal, called a "student growth objective." For example, a reading teacher might set a goal — with a supervisor's approval — that if 90 percent of his students improve by one level of proficiency, he would score well for that element of his review.

At Northern Valley Regional High School in Demarest on a recent morning, dozens of teachers met to learn how to set such objectives. A consultant, Laura Wood, told them the process was not as "scary as it sounds."

"People want to be angry . but it is manageable," Wood said. "You do it every day. You give a student a pre-test and post-test and show their growth. But now you're putting it on paper."

One music teacher said she would check each student's ability to read notes, sing a folk song and perform scales and see how many improved from fall to spring. A gym teacher said she might use FitnessGram, a software program that tracks how many sit-ups, push-ups and other exercises students can do. And a social-studies teacher considered rating how well students analyzed historical documents at the start of his course, then again at the end. Some said the mounting pressure would spur teachers to trade more tips.

Whether the new evaluations will actually lead to harsher ratings is unclear. In Tennessee, Florida and Michigan, where new teacher evaluation systems were used last year, nearly everyone continued to be rated "effective."

Similarly, when Bergenfield used its new method for observing classrooms last year, no teacher received an overall rating of "unsatisfactory." These ratings did not yet include student test data. But when supervisors watched teachers at work, few were deemed "basic." Most were called "proficient" or "distinguished."

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