Teacher Evaluation Gets a New Start

September 2, 2011

The timing may not be intentional, but the Christie administration’s announcement yesterday of its pilot teacher evaluation system in 11 districts came almost to the day on a conspicuous anniversary.

It was a year ago and a week that Gov. Chris Christie fired Bret Schundler as his education commissioner over what was a mishap on the state’s failed application for federal Race to the Top money, a grant that aimed to put in place this very evaluation system statewide.

A firestorm erupted and accusations flew, and tensions only heightened over how the administration was going to handle Christie’s central quest to tighten teacher accountability without a $400 million federal grant to help pay for it.

Needless to say, and admittedly for other reasons, too, Christie’s relations with the teachers unions, who had an on-again-off-again relationship, with Schundler only worsened.

A year later, the system that would directly tie teacher evaluation to student achievement is seeing a distinctly calmer roll-out with yesterday’s announcement of the pilot. A top official of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) even used the words "cautious optimism."

That’s not to say the pilot doesn’t face huge challenges in the next few months, and the union is hardly on board with how and how much student test scores will play in the final product.

Even among supporters there also is skepticism that however it works in the 11 districts from Newark to Ocean such a system will be a heavy lift to have ready for statewide implementation in by 2012-2013, as Christie has proposed.

But even with that, acting commissioner Chris Cerf who replaced Schundler three months later wasn’t making the same promises. Cerf stressed that is still the goal and he was confident the systems would be ready.

"I’m not hedging on our goal to do this in 2012, but I also say we are committed to doing this well," Cerf said yesterday. "If we need to adjust [the timing], I won’t rule it out."

The administration’s whole unveiling of the project has taken on a more diplomatic tone in the past few months, based on a task force report that highlighted the challenges almost as much as the promises of better teacher evaluation.

In the last two weeks, the education department held two lengthy conference calls with reporters to explain the new system and how it would work. With more than 30 districts applying for more than $1 million in grants to implement it, it said, the pilot allows each of the winning districts some flexibility to develop its own specific models for evaluation. But they need to be based on several central tenets, including that half the grade be based on increased and structured classroom observations and the other half based on student achievement, measured by both standardized test scores and other tools.

The result will go into the development of a statewide system that will be the centerpiece of the administration’s plans to then tie those measures to a teacher’s tenure, pay, and potentially employment, in the case of layoffs.

But Cerf yesterday was downplaying what he called the "consequences" part.

"Tenure and performance pay and things like that are not what we are talking about today," he said. "We’re talking a serious research and design effort in how you effectively evaluate teachers: what do you measure, what counts, how do you make sure it is fair, and the whole area of data."

He called this just the first stage, “and we’re going about this with a large amount of humility.”

So far, the NJEA – a fierce critic of using test scores as a prime measure is sticking to its guns, and the union will hold training sessions for its staff and the union presidents in the participating districts in how best to treat the pilot.

The training will look at local contracts and whether any will run up against agreements already in place.

“It may not be an issue, but it will be prudent to take a look,” said Rosemary Knab, the NJEA’s associate director of research who is overseeing the union’s monitoring of the pilot.

It will also look at how the new observations will work and how much time will be required, along with how the principals doing the evaluations will also be trained. She said the classroom observation piece could be an important milestone for the state.

“The current regulations in this state are 33 years old, and it is time to design something more current, encourage a new form of professional support and professional development, and bring some better monitoring of what’s going on in the classroom,” she said.

But it comes with a big caveat: the NJEA’s continued opposition to relying heavily on test scores.

“It’s the piece not driven by research, but by a political agenda,” Knab said. “We are very concerned about that.”

Even some leaders of the local unions that have signed on to participate in the pilot system pretty much a requirement of all winning applications voiced some skepticism yesterday.

Curt Nath, a high school Spanish teacher who leads Ocean City’s union of 210 teachers and staff, said he’d rather be part of the development process than have it foisted in his members. But he said calling this a pilot when teachers won’t even be trained in the details until November is a misnomer.

“You can’t honestly call it a pilot since nobody is given it the real time to do the research to see if it is effective,” he said yesterday. “If you truly believe it will work, give it the time.”

Still, he and others didn’t want to come off too critical until they could learn more. Some outside observers said even that was a big stride from a year ago.

"In the last year New Jersey has moved from talk to action, from ideas to implementation,” wrote Kathleen Nugent, director of Democrats for Education Reform-New Jersey, an advocacy group active in the teacher quality debate, especially in the legislature.

The legislature is now considering a revamp of teacher tenure that would hinge on the new evaluation system. “We knew we should tie student achievement to teacher evaluations, but our data systems needed some work,” Nugent continued, in an email. “We knew that a strong tenure reform bill was long overdue, but the pieces all needed to fit together. Now we have a legitimate evaluation system rolling out with educators at the table to provide on-the-ground feedback, and we have a committed tenure reform bill. . . . It is exciting to think of where we can go from here."

Neither she nor others said they expected it would not come without its hurdles. The chairman of the task force that provided the initial framework said his members recommended a limited pilot because they knew how difficult it would be.

“I hope people realize how difficult this is to take these concepts to operational stage,” said Brian Zychowski, superintendent of North Brunswick schools, which applied but did not win a grant. “It is hard work, time consuming work, and work we need to get right.”