Rating New Jersey’s Teachers

Jersey’s pilot program for teacher evaluation enters its second year, with lessons learned and continuing concerns.

Photo by Danielle Austen.
Matt Jennings, superintendent of schools in Alexandria Township, observes language-arts teacher Diane Throckmorton as she instructs a first-grade class at the Lester D. Wilson School.
Photo by Danielle Austen.

When Matt Jennings became superintendent of schools in Alexandria Township in 2007, he decided to examine the teacher evaluation process in the small (pre-K-to-8) Hunterdon County district. Teacher quality wasn’t the national hot-button issue it is today, but Jennings believed in rigorously judging classroom performance. He combed through two years of teacher reviews without finding a single negative rating. Curious, he kept going. And going. “In 20 years, only one person had received an unsatisfactory evaluation,” he says.

Jennings was dismayed, but not entirely surprised. Many school districts conducted business that way, rarely holding teachers’ feet to the fire or providing constructive feedback. Those were the old days, before the Obama administration made teacher effectiveness a national priority. Chris Christie also made sterner teacher evaluations a goal when he came into office as New Jersey’s governor. In 2010 he announced a plan to hold teachers accountable by factoring student test scores into performance reviews and making it harder for them to get tenure.

These days New Jersey is one of about two dozen states overhauling the way educators are evaluated. The New Jersey Department of Education is working on regulations that will radically alter the process. Beginning in September 2013, all New Jersey teachers will be issued an annual report card. But instead of A, B, C, D or F, they will be judged highly effective, effective, partially effective or ineffective. Half their grade will be based on multiple expert observations of classroom performance using Web-based technologies. The other half will be based on a score extrapolated from standardized test scores and other achievement measures.

Entering the new school year, the state education department is still fine-tuning the new teacher evaluation system. Last year the department awarded grants totaling $1.1 million in state and federal funds to 10 school districts that volunteered to test-run its model, including Alexandria Township. This year the department has set aside $1.2 million more to support the original pilots and 10 more districts. (The grants do not always cover all of a district’s costs. In Red Bank last year, the district spent $75,000 to implement the pilot program, according to superintendent Laura Morana. Its grant was about $57,300.)

Once the system is adopted, it can be used as the basis for teacher tenure and firing decisions. In June state lawmakers voted to change New Jersey’s century-old tenure system, which Christie had criticized as “a job for life.” Until now, teachers were granted tenure after three years on the job. Under the new bill, the process will take four years. And veteran teachers will lose their tenured status if they get bad grades two years in a row. 

Today, one year away from the scheduled rollout of the evaluation reform, many New Jersey teachers are upset. Some are scared.

They’re not opposed to being observed by experts bearing iPads and complicated scoring rubrics. (Traditional observations were performed once or twice a year by a principal sitting in the back of the room.) In fact, many teachers welcome the prospect. “Can everybody improve? Absolutely,” says Sharon Lukatch, a veteran teacher in Alexandria.

The new methods, though time-consuming, got good reviews from administrators who participated in last year’s pilots. “It led to a real culture change in my school,” says Brian Gismondi, principal of West Deptford High School in Gloucester County. “We had discussions about teaching that we never had before.”

Gismondi was responsible for evaluating 22 teachers, which meant two rounds of 22 scheduled observations and conferences, plus scores of  mandated “power walkthroughs,” or informal observations. Gismondi believes the experience allowed him to help teachers develop their skills: “I’ve become an educational consultant, not just a building manager. The only problem was in finding the time.”

What does scare teachers is being judged by student performance on standardized tests—even though the state will use a statistical formula to determine student growth from year to year, rather than an absolute score. “The test piece is what everybody is afraid of. There are so many factors affecting scores that they have no control over, like absenteeism, poverty and class size,” says Rosemary Knab, associate director of Research and Economic Services with the New Jersey Education Association, New Jersey’s largest teachers’ union.

“Clearly, there needs to be accountability for teachers,” says Tynia Thomassie, a former Essex County Teacher of the Year who teaches language arts at West Orange High School. “Any employee should be measured. But giving so much weight to standardized test scores ignores the realities and complexity of teaching.”

Students are not always motivated to do well, especially seniors already accepted to college, says Thomassie, and some excellent students simply do not test well. She also wonders if teachers, fearing a poor annual review, would avoid certain classes or schools. “Who will want to teach the struggling students?” she asks.

John Wodnick, a veteran English teacher at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, says he’s all for a fair accountability system that improves teachers’ skills. But, he adds, “I think we are in a perilous situation where the love of data is going to undermine the love of learning. Success in education is far more nuanced than standardized tests. They don’t reflect the honest effort that goes into reaching the minds of young people. They don’t know when you’ve made a difference in a young person’s life or awakened a spark in a young person’s mind.” 

Teachers are also concerned about what kind of tests will be used as measuring sticks. Standardized tests such as NJ ASK enable the state to track individual students but cover only core subjects in grades three through eight. Yet two-thirds of the state’s educators teach other subjects or grades. School districts will be on their own to come up with tests for them. Some of the pilot districts did not get that far. Alexandria Township used home-grown assessments for subjects such as social studies, Chinese and dance.

Researchers and scholars are divided about the wisdom of assigning so much weight to test scores, fearful that unreliable measures could end up unfairly wrecking careers. Bruce D. Baker, a professor at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education, has criticized the New Jersey plan in his blog on education policy. “I’m a data geek at heart,” he says. “I would love to find productive ways to use data for good human-resource management. But using growth metrics to try to tease out a single teacher’s effect on student outcomes is problematic.  These methodologies have a really high error rate.”

Even Matt Jennings, the superintendent in Alexandria, does not fully buy into every piece of the state plan.  He is among those who say it assigns too much weight to standardized tests. “There’s nothing wrong with using them as one source of data. State testing has its place, but not in determining the value added by a teacher to a child’s growth. I fear teachers will teach even more to the test,” he says. “When I talk to parents about educational goals, I hear, ‘I want my child to develop learning skills,’ or be able to think critically, or be emotionally secure. I don’t hear anything about achievement levels on standardized tests.”

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The drive to hold teachers accountable was embedded in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, launched in 2009. In order to win a share of the stimulus money being dangled before them, states were required to adopt certain pieces of the government’s reform agenda, including using standardized test scores for teacher evaluation. Tennessee, an early winner in the competition—New Jersey did not win any money until the third round—began grading teachers last year, and Rhode Island and Florida will start this year, according to Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a privately funded reform group. To date, only Washington, D.C., has actually fired teachers for being ineffective; it began dismissing poor performers in 2010.

Jacobs says her group believes standardized tests “should count a lot.” But it does not believe states need to rank every teacher. It also opposes districts publicizing the rankings, which happened in Los Angeles and New York City. (New Jersey education officials have pledged to keep results confidential.) “What these formulas do best is identify the outliers—who is getting above-average results or below-average results. At this stage we don’t need it to be much more than that,” she says.

Advocates for greater accountability point to research saying teachers are the single most important in-school factor in a child’s educational attainment. That’s a conclusion few dispute, and fewer yet would argue against removing from the classroom teachers who can’t teach.

Yet no one has a fail-safe method for that, says Aaron M. Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College of Columbia University. “We use measures based on test scores. They identify teachers who are good or bad on raising test scores. We also use rubrics to rate teacher practice, but do we know that high ratings on those rubrics result in better-educated students? Not really,” he says.

New Jersey, at least, has the luxury of studying the lessons learned in states and districts whose reform efforts are farther along. Some have stumbled. In Tennessee, for example, an independent study commission reported that teachers whose performance had been faulted weren’t given the means to improve their classroom skills.

“I don’t think any state would say they’ve crossed the finish line,” says Peter Shulman, assistant commissioner with the state education department. “There are pieces we think are worth learning from, in Washington, D.C., New Haven, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Pittsburgh. But we don’t think there’s one perfect model.”

New Jersey’s evaluation program has moved slowly; the start date has already been postponed once. It has sought continuous input from pilot districts. And it is advising local school boards that they can use state or federal funds to cover the costs of implementing the program.

One Saturday last spring, Robert Fisicaro, who directs the pilot program, together with four teachers working with the state, described the effort at a public forum in Jersey City. “There are a lot of very talented teachers who haven’t reached their potential,” explained Fisicaro, a former teacher and principal. “We want a system that will acknowledge our best teachers. There’s a huge need for them to mentor.”

Seated in the audience was LaDesha Wadley, who’d come by herself as an interested parent. Her son is a seventh-grader at School 37 in Jersey City. When Fisicaro opened the discussion to the audience, she raised her hand. “Are students and/or parents going to be involved?” she asked.

Later Wadley said she didn’t receive a clear answer. “I sensed a little hesitation. I don’t know if they particularly want much input from parents yet,” she said. “It seems to me they want to do it more on an administration level, before they involve parents.”

In general, Wadley thinks it’s a good idea to grade teachers against tough standards. “I don’t want to throw teachers under the bus, but there are a few who lack motivation to do their job,” she said. But she was not sure objective means exist to identify great teachers. “My child tends to do well in class with a teacher he has a good relationship with—someone who he can go to and say, ‘I’m struggling, can you help me?’ Someone who might then keep him in class when she’s supposed to be having lunch, to get him on the same page as the rest of the class. He had that experience. In fifth grade, he struggled with math. But the following year, he did awesome.”

As the 2011-2012 school year in Alexandria came to a close, teachers anxiously waited to learn their final grades. Those whose students had taken standardized state tests, not usually scored until summer, received “interim” grades that would be made final this fall. They’d had lots of observations and discussed the results with superiors. Now they were waiting to receive an alert on their computers. When they went online, they would find out how many points they had scored out of a possible 100.

“Quite a few people have received their scores, but not too many people are talking about it, and people are not asking their colleagues. It’s uncomfortable,” confesses Sharon Lukatch, who has taught first grade for 38 years. Jennings, the superintendent, says the vast majority of evaluations resulted in a grade of “effective,” the second highest category. Grades higher or lower were few and far between.  “Many of our teachers would have preferred to have received ‘highly effective.’ But ‘effective’ means they met our expectations.”

When interviewed by New Jersey Monthly, Lukatch, co-president of the local collective bargaining unit, was still waiting for her alert. She admits she is hoping to see the “highly effective” box light up. “After 38 years, I know how I’ll feel if I get ‘effective.’ Does that sound like a C to you?” 

Mary Jo Patterson writes frequently on education for New Jersey Monthly.

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