Teacher Evaluation Forum Argues Merits of Student Achievement-Based Assessment Systems

May 16, 2012

Participants from the state, Jersey City, and other districts, representing administrators and teachers, met at a public forum at City Hall to discuss the ramifications of pending state-mandated teacher evaluation changes that would be more closely linked to student achievement.

During the two-and-a-half hour session, “Teacher Evaluation In the Classroom,” attended by about 200 people, stakeholders affected by the ongoing reform effort shared their perspectives with the audience while answering questions from both moderator John Mooney, education writer and co-founder of New Jersey Spotlight magazine, and audience members comprised largely of concerned parents and educators.

Sponsors of this regional summit were the local group, Parents for Progress, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association and the statewide parents’ advocacy group, Better Education for New Jersey Kids, Inc.

Roundtable participants were, from Jersey City, Diane Torman, school improvement supervisor, and Carolyn DelPlano, Henry Snyder High School special education teacher. Joining the Jersey City representatives were Tanya Tenturier, an Elizabeth fourth-grade teacher, principal Genar Mills of Newark’s Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, and Bob Fisicaro, coordinator of the statewide pilot evaluation program, Excellent Education New Jersey (EENJ). Fisicaro, working for the state Department of Education (DOE), is a former elementary school principal in Logan Township in Gloucester County.

Ten districts as a whole (though not Jersey City) are participating in the pilot. Yet 19 separate schools, including those in Jersey City accepting federally-funded School Improvement Grants, are required to take part.

Mooney, a former education writer for The Star Ledger and The Record before launching the magazine, described the effort to enact a markedly different statewide evaluation program, where at least 50-percent of the rating criteria must be based on student performance. This effort, which he called “a long process,” started when the EENJ pilot program launched for the 2011-12 school year.

He noted that much of the criteria need to be ironed out among the players, including Gov. Chris Christie, state legislators, and the NJEA, even as all sides agree that fundamental changes in the process are needed in the 21st Century. Major sticking points included evaluating how much weight should be given to scores attained from language arts and math tests on the state’s Assessment of Skills and Knowledge for fourth through eighth grades, and the High School Proficiency Assessment. Similarly, assuring a fair and equitable rating system for all teachers was cited as a challenge, as is whether ratings should be kept confidential or made available to the public.

“The basic issue is how do you generate the highest quality of teachers in the schools,” Mooney said, noting that many of the adopted program’s key components will not be enacted until after the issue “plays out in the legislature and the political sphere.”

Still, even the NJEA has acknowledged the need to change current evaluation methods. In a handout issued at the meeting, titled, “Education reform, done right, done now,” the group maintained that “the centerpiece of NJEA’s reform agenda is a proposal to revolutionize evaluations and to tie those evaluations to a better, more efficient tenure system.” This tenure system, according to the handout, should also address “the mistaken notion that tenure ‘is a job for life’ while keeping protections in place to ensure members’ jobs are not threatened for inappropriate personal or political reasons that have nothing to do with classroom effectiveness.”

Under the general proposal, teachers would either be rewarded with better job security, or penalized to the point of termination, depending on how well they score over consecutive evaluations using a defined scale.

According to EENJ’s “Core Principles,” any implemented program should feature a rating system on a scale ranging from “ineffective, partially effective, effective, and highly effective.” Other stated principles include keeping “personnel consequences” resulting from sustained poor evaluations under local school board control; evaluating “on the basis of multiple measures that include both teaching outcomes (outputs) and effective teaching practice (inputs)”; and evaluation components based on learning outcomes, which “should include progress or growth on objective assessments that take into consideration starting and ending points of student achievement.” These, they say, would be “most fair to teachers of high-need students where absolute performance may not be an accurate reflection of growth during the year.”

During the forum, teacher and administrator representatives agreed that improving quality instruction for students should be the top priority of the evaluation initiative, though DelPlano and Tenturier conceded they were apprehensive over how any implemented program might impact their ultimate ratings, particularly using student performance as a criteria.

“The higher call of this work is to help guide teachers in their professional practice,” said Fisicaro, downplaying the penalty aspects of poor ratings throughout the forum. “Because that’s really the only way the quality of learning will improve. Districts don’t provide nearly enough feedback to guide their growth.”

Mills added that there has not been much in the way of early reactions to the pilot project from his faculty, though he acknowledged they will need to embrace change and understand the ramifications for their careers very soon.

“Thus far, it hasn’t really hit them,” he told Mooney. “They really don’t understand how serious this will be.”

DelPlano assured the audience she has taken the upcoming reforms very seriously. The Snyder math teacher, tasked with teaching geometry to special ed students, commended Torman’s guidance for helping her cope with her apprehensions entering into the pilot project, which, she said, encourages more self-analysis than before. “It’s more involved than in the past,” the teacher said of the new model. “It’s the first time it’s most reflective for teachers.”

“In years past, they just did this review,” DelPlano said. “It’s a little inclusive for teachers in the classroom.”

Torman explained the pilot involves her holding more “detailed meetings with teachers” throughout the process.

“I think the most rewarding part [is that] it gives [teachers] the opportunity to reflect,” said the evaluator, who noted the process also promotes peer support. “The last piece is professional development, and we’re building that collectively, as there is a process where the teachers will come together and share their evaluation of the classroom.”

DelPlano, however, conceded the idea of placing heavy weight on test scores to measure her effectiveness “makes me nervous” because there are variables in different classrooms across New Jersey.

“One of the concerns I have is your environment is not the same,” she told Mooney.

Though she later told JCI she was sympathetic to the idea of the state’s need to take additional measures to help teachers rated in less affluent, urban districts such as Jersey City, which tend to have tougher classroom environments, parent Gina Po told the round-table it really can’t let them off the hook.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing that Jersey City and New Jersey are different,” insisted Po. “We’re not.”

Po also expressed concern that the revised evaluation program could still be tailored to shielding incompetent teachers from accountability based on the discussions.

James R. Johnson, executive director of the College Preparatory Incentive Program, Inc. of Jersey City, which works with district students, criticized the Christie administration for seemingly trying to put all the blame on teachers based on test scores. Johnson, whose program has helped 30 city students gain admission to colleges this coming school year, maintained that a good part of the problem for poorly performing students stems from apathetic parents.

“I think teachers are really being made scapegoats,” he told the panel, while conceding “some need to go” if they aren’t doing their job. “There are parents who cannot control their own kids.”

Justin Barra, a DOE spokesman who attended the meeting representing acting commissioner Christopher Cerf, told JCI that any final evaluation program will not simply judge student performance based on test scores between rich and poor districts across the board.

“The final program would evaluate academic performance by tracking student progress and growth among students in other districts with similar socioeconomic backgrounds,” he explained.

The program takes effect in 2013-14 school year, though the evaluations could tart in 2012-13. The Jersey City pilot is based on former New Jersey teacher Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, one of four nationally-identified models the participating districts could select.