Grading New Jersey's Educators Not an Easy Task

March 18, 2012

RED BANK — Stacy Sherwood stood in front of her fourth-grade math class at Red Bank Middle School and asked her students to gather around a large globe.

Sherwood figured that if they looked at the Nile River, the Caspian Sea and Lake Superior, it would help them better understand word problems that included those geographic elements.

But when students were broken up into small groups to solve problems on their own, many simply could not grasp what they were supposed to do. Sherwood admitted later that the lesson had fallen flat.

It was a big day for Sherwood. Schools Superintendent Laura C. Morana was there to evaluate her under a new state pilot program. New Jersey, like many other states, is working to come up with a new way to do what hasn’t been done on a broad scale before: Grade the teachers.

For her part, Sherwood says that, despite the bad day, she likes the new system.

“Maximizing teacher effectiveness is the best chance we have to improve student achievement,” said Sherwood, who heads the local union. “I’m in favor of all of that.”

Red Bank is one of 11 districts and 19 schools statewide that are trying out new teacher evaluation tools. Next year, the program will be expanded to 30 districts.

All school districts will prepare for the new system during the next school year by forming a committee and starting to train teachers and administrators. Districts also may decide to begin implementing a system on a trial basis.

By the 2013-14 school year, state Department of Education officials say, a full statewide evaluation system will be in effect.

Reviews matter

The reviews are expected to matter. A bill that would end teacher tenure as a virtual lifetime job guarantee is expected to move through the legislature this spring. Teachers who perform less than satisfactorily in the new system may lose tenure, and new teachers may be denied it.

The details in the bill have been criticized, but the concept has broad political support. Republican Gov. Chris Christie has advocated for tenure reform since he took office.

The state’s largest teachers union, New Jersey Education Association, opposes the bill but has told its local unions to work with the state on the teacher evaluation project.

Under the new program, half of each teacher’s annual evaluation will be based on test scores, portfolios of student work and other measures of student learning.

For those who teach in subjects where state tests are given, such as math, 35 percent of their evaluation will be based on student scores on those tests alone.

The other half of the evaluation system will come through in-class observations, like Morana’s visit to Sherwood’s class in late January. The observations will be based on a complex scoring system where evaluators will judge teachers on their knowledge of the subject, the variety in their class activities, the clarity of their instruction and many other elements.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, who heads an education policy center at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said such comprehensive systems are new, and researchers still are trying to determine their effectiveness.

“Lots of states and districts are doing what Red Bank is doing, evaluating teachers with the same framework. What we don’t know is if teachers evaluated on that framework are doing a better job,” Whitehurst said.

“Trained observers do tend to evaluate reliably. The framework is good at identifying terrible teachers. It’s not so good at identifying high-flying teachers,” he said.

The union's take

Rosemary Knab, associate research director for the NJEA, said that while the union likes some of the approaches the state is testing, it believes New Jersey should take three years to fully train and trial run the system.

“It takes longer to do quality training,” Knab said. “This is a huge systemic change for some districts.”

Knab said principals and other evaluators need to be trained to know what techniques and problems to look out for, and teachers will need to adjust accordingly.

But Whitehurst disagreed about the need to wait. He said teachers unions are dragging their feet reluctantly on the issue simply because they don’t want the evaluation system in place.

Yes, it will be a learning process, and the state should acknowledge that, Whitehurst added. But time is of the essence.

“There’s a window of opportunity there,” Whitehurst said. “If you don’t go ahead and slam it through, the window may close. That’s the political calculus here.”

Union leaders do express fears that the evaluation system could be used nefariously as a tool to manage personnel costs in districts.

But interest groups and experts are hopeful New Jersey eventually will create a accurate system to fairly gauge teachers, or at least identify the truly ineffective ones.


Nonetheless, a peek inside Sherwood’s class shows that judging an educator is not always easy.

For the lesson on word problems, the 15-year teaching veteran pulled out all the stops.

In addition to using her globe, Sherwood created a comprehensive and entertaining PowerPoint presentation to use on her smartboard.

Sherwood, 47, also pointed to a poster on the wall and reviewed the “Guide to Solving Word Problems,” that the class had been over before.

Then she previewed the questions before dividing the students – many from low-income or immigrant families — into groups.

To grow a single orange, it takes about 13.8 gallons of water. A tomato is made of 95 percent water, but takes only 3 gallons of water to grow it. How much more water is needed to grow an orange than a tomato?

The students stared. They scratched their heads. Then one suggested they round up, since they had been doing that recently.

An aide stopped by an offered some suggestions for how to think about the problem.

Morana looked over and asked them to figure out what type of equation they needed. The assistance did not help.

The students settled on: 95-14= 81 more gallons of water.

So what went wrong?

Afterward, Morana said she was largely impressed with Sherwood’s lesson.

“There was a high level of preparation. She knew what she was going to do down to the minute,” Morana said. “The teachers, by her actions, communicated high expectations for the kids.”

But Morana acknowledged that she would have some suggestions for improvement, such as allowing more time for certain sections of the lesson. She said the students in general were struggling with thinking through and processing word problems.

Sherwood agreed.

“When you add the difficulty that we’re having with reading comprehension in the district, to the new vocabulary, it makes the basic math really challenging,” Sherwood said.

“I have to understand what they are they not getting.”

Nonetheless, Sherwood said she’d make plenty of changes before running the lesson again.

“There are so many complex decisions that have to go into any given day. You have to constantly adjust,” she said. “The big thing the pilot (program) is forcing the district and teachers to do is to reflect. The conversations that you have … That’s where you get the coaching and the remediation.”