AP: Study Finds NJ Teachers Open to New Evaluation

February 8, 2012

TRENTON, N.J. (WTW) — New Jersey teachers believe the current teacher evaluation system is subjective and does not help them do their jobs better, a study commissioned by two education reform groups concluded following an unprecedented series of focus groups with nearly 300 teachers.

The teachers identified potential pitfalls to proposed reforms and they were leery of evaluations in which student progress would account for half of their own grades. But they said that a new system could make them more accountable for how much students learn, and indicated they were generally open to change.

The report was obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press as the groups behind the study began distributing it to state legislators, other education policymakers and teachers who took part in the focus groups.

Their goal is to help influence the debate now taking place in New Jersey over efforts by Republican Gov. Chris Christie to change the way teachers are evaluated and to overhaul the tenure system.

Joseph & Associates, a group headed by Shawn Joseph, a former teacher who started this month as schools superintendent in Seaford, Del., compiled the report. It was commissioned by StudentsFirst and Better Education for New Jersey Kids, two nonprofit groups that promote the sort of changes that Christie is calling for.

The report, which finds some skepticism about reforms promoted by those behind the study, relies on teachers' statements at 30 focus groups involving 293 educators held around the state last fall. Teachers who participated were granted anonymity and given $100 gift cards. Though they were not a randomly selected group, Joseph said they included educators who are both deeply involved in the union and those who are not.

Ten New Jersey school districts are currently trying out a new, more thorough system for rating teachers. A bill before the Legislature would use the ratings as a major factor in determining which teachers receive or lose lifetime tenure protections and who would be the first to go in the case of layoffs.

The report quotes one teacher as saying the new rating system would ensure an evaluation is focused more on students and less on whether administrators "like me."

But teachers who took part in the focus groups also had concerns that a new system would rely too heavily on standardized test results, that evaluations from time-crunched principals could be "phony," and that a new system would not account for students slipping in school because of factors outside a school's control, such as a divorce or death in the family.

Public schools in New Jersey generally rank among the best in the nation as measured by the standardized tests that experts say can be used to compare education systems. But a wide gap remains between the performance of students in low-income cities and the rest of the state.

Christie says one way to reduce the gap would be to change tenure laws and other policies to make it easier keep the best teachers and oust the worst ones. To do that, he says, more useful evaluations are essential.

Christie says the current tenure law is the reason that from 2001 to 2010, only 25 tenured teachers statewide were found to be inefficient and only 17 of them were fired over it.

Some union and school officials say many more teachers are ushered out without formal charges. The New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, says that about 40 percent of starting teachers don't begin their fourth year in the same district — and do not receive tenure protections.

Currently, state law calls for tenured teachers to be observed teaching only once per year. There's no statewide standard evaluation form, and many districts rate their educators based only or largely on those classroom visits, giving marks of either "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory."

The report finds deep and nearly universal discontent with that system.

Among the criticism: It's too subjective and does not result in enough feedback for teachers from their bosses. And when it does, the teachers said, the feedback isn't always meaningful.

But there was less unanimity when it came to what would be a better way of evaluating teachers.

In the system being tested this year, teachers would have to be given one of four ratings, ranging from ineffective to highly effective. Half their evaluations would be based on classroom observations. The other half would be based on how much their students show they're learning — including standardized tests.

Some teachers in the focus groups liked the ideas behind the new system.

"I think the positive is that it puts the students back as the center of the focus," one said.

But the teachers expressed concern about how their principals could handle more time in classrooms and that standardized tests would be overused. One said that test scores "will unfairly penalize those from a school district with socioeconomic challenges when compared to suburban districts that have better economic situations."