Evaluation Process Should be Improved

March 5, 2012

 There seems to be a level of agreement in Trenton that the teacher evaluation system in New Jersey is due for an overhaul as part of comprehensive education reform.

But it is important to make sure the instruments used for those evaluations are themselves up to the job. That is why it is gratifying to see the state Department of Education has contracted with Rutgers University to review the new teacher evaluation system being tried out in 10 school districts across the state.

This should be done in the interest of fairness and to blunt the inevitable criticism from the New Jersey Education Association that some of the methods Gov. Chris Christie is pushing are unproven.

Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf says the findings by a review team from the Rutgers Graduate School of Education will be used to guide implementation of the new system in the 2013-14 school year. Once an adequate system is in place, individual teacher evaluations should be made public as they were last week in New York City.

On the face of it, the pilot program already seems far superior to the current system. State law currently requires that tenured teachers be observed just once a year, with many districts giving marks of only “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Observing a teacher once a year ignores the fact that any teacher can have a bad day. And ratings of simply satisfactory or unsatisfactory fail to differentiate the poor teacher from the fair, good or outstanding teacher.

The pilot program calls for teacher evaluations to be based half on classroom observations and half on how much progress students show in learning, including how they perform on standardized tests. Teachers get one of four ratings, from ineffective to highly effective.

Not only do four ratings provide a more accurate picture of teacher achievement, but they allow room for improvement because the proposed tenure reform gives teachers time to improve their evaluation before being denied tenure.

It is also important to note that standardized testing is used to measure student progress over time, rather than merely as a raw number without any context.

The new teacher evaluation system will provide better tracking of performance. That is important, Cerf rightly points out, because teachers are the “single biggest in-school determinant of children’s success.” Making sure teachers are well-suited to the task requires tracking their performance with the best tools available.