School Reform

December 9, 2011

This is a unique time in New Jersey and the nation. Global competition and increased expectations have focused parents, students and elected leaders of both parties on ensuring that every child has access to an excellent teacher and that teaching is elevated in a manner consistent with its overwhelming importance.

The latest and clearest examples of this change present themselves around three areas: teacher evaluation reform, tenure reform and merit or performance pay for those who either excel at driving student outcomes or who take on positions of increased responsibility or difficulty.

Evaluation reform

The state Department of Education is currently piloting an overhaul of teacher evaluation in New Jersey consistent with the guidance of President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The pilot makes student learning, demonstrated in a variety of objective manners, a key factor in how teachers are evaluated. My organization, B4K, supports the pilot program and using student learning as a significant factor to determine if teachers are awarded tenure.

Our current teacher evaluation (and indeed assignment) protocols are ineffective and don’t properly support two groups: students who need great teachers and teachers who need help so they may improve. Today, teacher ratings fall into only two categories, satisfactory and unsatisfactory, with nearly all teachers being rated satisfactory. There is little in the way of meaningful feedback, and current evaluations are entirely subjective and left to one person, the school leader. This allows for the undue influence of that single observer and denies teachers the bedrock of student achievement with which to defend their practice.

The Department of Education’s evaluation pilot program makes objective measures of student performance constitute 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, with the remaining 50 percent being grounded in more traditional teacher observation against a high-quality rubric approved by the department. More importantly, both halves of this framework are flexible, with the objective 50 percent allowing districts to make as little as 35 percent of a teacher’s total evaluation linked to statewide standardized assessments (the rest can be district-created assessments or school-based measures).Moreover, those measures assess student achievement based on growth (how much did students learn over time), not as a single data point. The remaining, subjective 50 percent allows for competition among evaluation rubrics, as districts work to find the right fit. It also changes the rating system to four categories from two.

Adding objective measures to teacher evaluation — some being standardized assessments — has been criticized despite their endorsement as valid indicators by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. The National Center for Education Statistics in its report, “Error Rates in Measuring Teacher and School Performance Based on Student Test Score Gains,” asserted that, with three years of performance data, error rates on value-added measures of student achievement were 25 percent.

It’s also worth noting that this is precisely why multiple measures — not a single one — as well as teacher practice, continue to be significant percentages of a teacher’s evaluation.

The University of Chicago, in its study “Rethinking Teacher Evaluation in Chicago,” found there “is a strong relationship between classroom observation ratings and value added measures, and the relationship holds for math and reading test scores. In the classrooms of highly rated teachers, students showed the most growth; in the classrooms of teachers with low observation ratings, students showed the least growth.”

What is certain is that, regardless of error rate, the current system, where almost all teachers are rated satisfactory, is broken. Our way forward, which prioritizes student learning, must be approached deftly, but, indeed, it must be approached.

The Department of Education’s evaluation pilot represents a fundamental shift in what we value from teachers. Right now, how our students demonstrate what they have learned means nothing when teachers are evaluated. If we want student achievement to be the proxy for teaching excellence — and we want data to help us make key personnel decisions about whom we reward and who needs to get better — evaluation reform is critical. 

Reforming tenure

A new method to evaluate teachers, rooted in student achievement, is at the core of an examination of how we award and remove teacher tenure as well as how we reward teachers through increased responsibility, prestige and compensation.

New Jersey’s tenure law is a century old, born out of legitimate professional challenges inherent in teaching during the early 1900s. Tenure is awarded to a teacher, regardless of their talent, effort or skill, after they have taught for three years and one day. Tenure is a constitutionally protected property right and the process to remove it is both onerous (taking as many as three years) and expensive (costing in excess of $100,000).

Teachers also know tenure needs reform, as a 2004 study by education scholar Frederick Hess showed, with 36 percent reporting that “between tenure and the documentation requirements, it’s too hard for administrators to remove any but the very worst teachers.” Eighty-six percent of teachers reported that the inability to remove ineffective teachers is a problem.

Philosophically, those who support tenure reform believe tenure should be conferred for driving student achievement (how well a teacher has taught), not time served (how long) as it exists now.

B4K supports making tenure a reward for classroom excellence and giving intensive professional development and mentorship to struggling teachers so they may improve. Current legislative proposals by state Sens. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, and Joe Kyrillos, R-Monmouth, respectively, also support these ideas.

There are many similarities between these proposals but what is most important is that they tie the acquisition and removal of tenure to teachers receiving effective and highly effective ratings. When teachers are rated ineffective for consecutive years, they will lose tenure and must earn it back.

B4K believes that increasing the caliber of the teaching force overall is as important as reforming tenure, and that improving teachers who are currently poorly supported is as important as removing those who are ineffective. These strategies clearly complement one another. A professionalization of tenure and an expansion of teacher support are key to recruiting and retaining the best teachers.

Performance pay

As a practical matter, there is no policy on the table in the current legislative session that addresses merit pay. Gov. Chris Christie has indicated his support for merit-based compensation for individual teachers, and Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, has intimated his support for school-based merit-pay pools.

Despite these differing approaches, there is consensus building nationally around “performance pay” for teachers who take on increased responsibility, such as those who elect to shoulder difficult assignments, particularly in urban areas, and, more clearly, for teachers in hard-to-staff subject areas such as math and the sciences. These are exactly the common-sense “reforms of reward” that are necessary if we want to attract and keep the very best and brightest to, and in, the teaching profession.

The most important in-school factor for a child is the quality of his or her teacher. B4K, and legislators from both sides of the aisle, are working to make sure that, regardless of ZIP code or income, every child has access to an effective teacher and every teacher has the support they need to be truly successful.