Teacher Evaluation Pilot Program Prepares for Takeoff

June 30, 2011

The Christie administration’s planned pilot of a new statewide teacher evaluation system has begun to draw some interest from school districts, but also a few questions.

Officials of the state Department of Education (DOE) met with nearly 70 districts last week to explain the details of the planned pilot, which would provide $1.1 million to up to nine districts to test out evaluation systems for a year before one is put in place statewide.

The centerpiece of Gov. Chris Christie’s plan would be a requirement that up to half of a teacher’s evaluation be based on tangible measures of student achievement, be they standardized test scores or other student work, depending on the teacher. The rest would be through formal classroom and other observations.

Under Christie’s plan, those evaluations will ultimately be used to determine whether a teacher receives tenure and keeps it.

Keeping Its Options Open

But first the administration will try out a few options, and rolling out the pilot for the next school year, state officials said they were encouraged by the early interest. They said more than a dozen districts already intend to apply for the grants by the July 28 deadline.

Andrew Smarick, who hosted the meeting as special assistant to acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, said the applications would be evaluated on a series of factors, including how they will be applied to low-performing schools. The quality and depth of proposed evaluation systems would also be critical, and Smarick said many districts appear to have key pieces in place already.

"It was very encouraging to see that many of them are well along," he said.

One of those intending to apply is the Marlboro school district, which sent two members to the meeting last week.

Superintendent David Abbott said the district has put in place an evaluation system that is among the options in the state’s plan, one designed by Princeton-based education consultant Charlotte Danielson.

"A lot of the things we have to do we have done already, so we thought it far better to be on the front end of this and making a difference in the design than having it imposed on us," said Abbott yesterday.

Unanswered Questions

That’s not to say he and others didn’t have questions. A main one remains how the state will link student performance with individual teachers, he said, something the state has said it will be able to do within the year. The plan also calls for a range of measures to be used for subject areas that do not have state tests.

Abbott said Marlboro already connects student achievement with individual teachers through its own data collection, but he said he was uncertain how that would apply in the pilot.

"There are still a lot more questions than answers," he said.

The state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), has opposed the initiative as a whole, due to what it calls an overreliance on test scores as measures of teacher success. But its staff did participate in a separate conference call this week between department staff and several of the major education groups.

Rosemary Nabb, the NJEA’s vice president who sat in on the call, said she had many questions from the presentation, including the role that teachers and the union will play in the eventual design, either on a statewide basis or in the local pilots.

Local teachers do not agree to a district participating in the pilot, although they will be subject to the evaluations as a condition. of employment. Nabb said she asked specifically whether the NJEA would have a seat on a statewide advisory board that will be formed.

"I didn’t get any guarantee that they’d include us, so I guess that’s one of those we’ll see" she said.

Nabb said the statewide union has not spoken to its local presidents yet about the pilot.

"Our approach has been that once we know the pilots, then we’ll talk with our associations about what it will mean, what roles they will have," Nabb said. "I think there will be a lot of concerns from teachers."

She also raised some questions about how the pilot will match with existing regulations and maybe any collective bargaining agreements now in place. For instance, existing regulations call for one classroom evaluation per year for tenured teachers, while the pilot districts will need to do at least two.

"There are processes and procedures that we already go through that this seems to jump right over," she said.

State officials conceded there are some questions to resolve, and Smarick specifically cited what he called constructive input from the NJEA. "They had pointed questions, but they were very, very good," he said.

And Smarick said he hopes local teachers, as well as other groups, stay closely involved in the design of final systems.

"We are asking districts to work with teachers and other stakeholders because we want this as robust as possible," he said. "I talked about partnerships more than anything else."