When NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer testified before State Board of Education members last month, he wasn’t alone. Of course he was accompanied by fellow officers, Vice President Marie Blistan and Secretary-Treasurer Sean M. Spiller. Another 30 members joined him for NJEA’s Lobby Day.
And then, there were the letters—1,037 of them—each detailing the problems that educators and parents have experienced with the state’s rollout of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the new evaluation system (AchieveNJ), and/or the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exams. The letters were copied, collated and placed in 11 binders—one for each member of the State Board. NJEA had collected the letters via its website after the Association invited members and the public to describe their experiences with these initiatives.
That wasn’t the only evidence supporting NJEA’s call for a delay in implementation of the AchieveNJ educator evaluation system. Many of those who testified also brought letters directly from members of their local associations. An estimated 900 additional letters were presented to the State Board.
It’s time to “right the ship”
“Let me begin by being very clear,” Steinhauer opened. “NJEA supports high quality teacher evaluation designed to improve teacher effectiveness and student learning….But we are very concerned about how the evaluation system, and the related PARCC exams, are being implemented in New Jersey.
“Under the Common Core—which has its own serious implementation issues—teachers are supposed to collaborate,” Steinhauer continued. “But those same teachers are being subjected to an evaluation system that emphasizes student test scores and holds teachers personally responsible for those scores, as if no other factor contributes to student success.”
The NJEA president urged the State Board members to read the letters they received that day. “These are the voices of teachers and parents. Their concerns are real and they are legitimate. And they are calling on you to help fix what is going wrong.”
Steinhauer also addressed what New Jersey Department of Education officials have said to State Board members. “I know you’ve been told that it’s impractical to slow down. Well, it’s much more irresponsible to rush forward in the face of deep flaws and serious problems.
“I know you’ve been told that the problems really aren’t that bad, and that everything is under control. These binders tell you something very different. “I know you’ve been told that districts have had enough time to get ready and that we’ve already had a pilot program,” Steinhauer added, noting that several key aspects of AchieveNJ were written into the regulations after the pilot was completed.
“There’s still time to right the ship,” he concluded. “Please take a stand in favor of doing evaluation the right way, before it collapses under its own weight because we insisted on doing it the fast way.”
In their testimonies, Blistan and Spiller echoed the call to chart a better course, and they read excerpts from the letters members submitted online. Spiller suggested that State Board members view the binders as a “snapshot of the anxiety, frustration, anger, disappointment, and feelings of futility that teachers are experiencing across the state.” Blistan urged the board to “work with the amazing educators throughout this state” so we can do “evaluation the right way—not the rushed way.”
The testimonies of all three officers can be found in this article.
Lobby Day participants add their thoughts
Nearly two dozen NJEA members also testified on Common Core, AchieveNJ, and/or PARCC. Their stories supported Steinhauer’s contention that the state’s rollout of the Common Core has jeopardized the success of the standards. Their descriptions of the implementation of AchieveNJ painted a picture of an evaluation system that will fail if significant changes aren’t made. And their comments about PARCC demonstrated the fear that the assessments will undermine the joys of teaching and learning in New Jersey.
Indeed, the educators who spoke in Trenton touched on themes similar to those of their colleagues who submitted letters or written testimony. Several remarked that they had once been optimistic about the new evaluation system and welcomed the opportunity to improve their skills. Many explained that they didn’t blame their supervisors or principals for the failings of AchieveNJ, noting that the system buries administrators in paperwork too. A number of educators lamented the absence of cherished veteran teachers who will likely retire early rather than continue in a profession where innovation and caring for the whole child are no longer valued qualities.
But it was the stories that stole the day. Stories about “a world gone mad,” as one teacher called New Jersey’s education reform efforts privately.
Observations gone awry
From the very inception of AchieveNJ, a widespread complaint was the lack of adequate training that teachers and sometimes administrators received on their district’s teacher practice model. Teacher practice accounts for up to 85 percent of a teacher’s summative rating.
“We have not been trained at all this year,” said East Windsor EA President Ellen Ogintz, except for one hour on “how to retrieve an email that a pre-observation meeting had been scheduled or a post-observation had been completed.”
Jersey City EA President Ronald Greco reported that teachers in one school in his district have received no training on their district’s model, while preparation in other buildings consisted of a 15-minute video.Both Ogintz and Greco added that the district and school committees that are required by the new regulations are not operating as they should.
“On paper, the DEAC [District Evaluation Advisory Committee] has existed for approximately 16 months,” explained Greco. “”Yesterday was our second meeting.”
“Yes, each of our schools has a ScIP [School Improvement Panel], but only one has met, and that was back in September,” noted Ogintz.
Trenton EA President Naomi Johnson-LaFleur described what she called the “bastardization of the Danielson Framework for Teaching and Learning.”
The Danielson Framework “was developed to support teaching and to enhance student learning,” she said. “But AchieveNJ interferes with that. It has taken away pre-conferencing in most evaluations, which is needed for the process. Teachers are expected to develop a rapport with students, but yet the means for administrators to `communicate with teachers before an evaluation has been stripped by these regulations. Uploading artifacts and evidence into Teachscape or emailing them cannot take the place of human communication.”
Like several of her colleagues who testified, Johnson-LaFleur also questioned how a 20-minute observation could possibly allow an administrator to get a complete or accurate sense of the lesson and a teacher’s skills.
Steve Leadley, a member of the Lower Cape May Regional EA was so troubled by the problems he saw in using the Danielson Framework for teacher evaluation, he decided to email Charlotte Danielson directly.
“I actually received a reply from Ms. Danielson,” Leadley reported, “who confirmed that her intention was for her framework to be used as a tool to help teachers self-evaluate and not to ‘score’ them in formal observations.”
Matawan teacher Mary Elbert told the board members that her administrators are currently focused on Domain Four of the Danielson Framework, Professional Responsibilities.
“I can’t help but associate that with a seven-year-old’s first confession,” Elbert chided. “I called Mrs. Smith three times. I told Joe his haircut was particularly attractive once. I attended three football games, one soccer game, one wrestling match and judged speeches at the Academic Decathlon Regionals on a Saturday. Please.”
Nothing seems to anger professionals more than the oft-repeated and now infamous line from trainers and administrators that “Most teachers will live in 3 [Effective], but only vacation in 4 [Highly Effective.]
“Educators would never tell that to our students, yet that’s what we are now told about ourselves,” stated art teacher Marie Corfield. The Flemington-Raritan EA member called 2013-14 “the worst year of my professional career,” explaining that while she used to go home exhausted, she knew tomorrow would be “another chance to learn and grow. Now I just go home exhausted.”
For many educators, the requirement to create at least two SGOs (Student Growth Objectives) has also been problematic. Several testified that the process, which should feature collaboration between a teacher and his/her supervisor, hardly resembled a partnership. Educators explained that too often, SGOs add to the number of tests that a student must take during the year. Many teachers also noted the amount of time and energy they must now devote to a process that has more to do with meeting obligations than improving teaching.
Princeton Regional EA member Paula Jakowlew estimated that she has spent over 30 hours on an SGO process that she called “worthless paperwork.” Jakowlew then listed 14 activities that she believes would have increased student performance if only she had the time to perform them.
Laura Vannauker, a teacher in the Freehold Regional District, concurred. “Every department meeting, faculty meeting and professional development opportunity we have had for the past year has focused on our evaluations, not our students’ education,” said Vannauker. “Teachers are thinking about what they must do to get a good evaluation, not how to best teach each and every student.”
Testing, testing and more testing
Perhaps the harshest words of the afternoon were reserved for AchieveNJ’s use of student test data.
“As a veteran teacher, I know that a one-day test is not a true reflection of my teaching or my student’s abilities,” stated Upper Deerfield Township EA member Deanna Nicosia-Jones. She added, “I do not want to teach to a test.”
Franklin Township EA (Somerset) teacher Dan Epstein recalled a special needs student who did well in mathematics throughout the school year, but because of something that happened at home on the day of the NJASK, simply refused to take the test.
“Was this test an accurate measurement of his knowledge in math?” Epstein asked. “Is his score an accurate reflection of my ability as a teacher?”
But as worried as many teachers are about the use of SGPs, there was far greater concern expressed about the upcoming PARCC assessments.
South Brunswick Middle School teacher Andrea Cohen wondered when children will have the time to learn anything new given the time that will be spent preparing for and taking the PARCC tests, let alone the exams required for SGOs. She also questioned the cost of the new testing regimen.
“I would much rather my tax dollars go to lowering class sizes, funding professional development for teachers, and putting a librarian in every school than paying for more and more and more tests,” Cohen remarked.
A number of educators feared their districts would not have the technology necessary to properly administer PARCC. Jackson EA member Elaine Holleran described the scene in her classroom when her students take a Student Reading Inventory test using computers. Holleran traverses the classroom assisting students with signal problems and login difficulties and helps them reboot if necessary. Then she watches her eighth graders “literally hunch over their desks squinting to read the lengthy passages on the small screens and then tediously manipulating the small mouse pads on their Chromebooks.”
“Is it fair to assume that all students in all grades have adequate keyboarding skills?” she asked.
Lee Ann Brensinger, a teacher in Pequannock, told the State Board members about a special education class that had finished an hour-long benchmark reading test online, only to learn that the internet had failed and none of the students’ work had been saved.
“This same special education class had two other hour-long tests that same week,” Brensinger added. “It seems absurd that we would be evaluated in such circumstances, but we are.”
A profession in peril
The frustration and anxiety of the teachers who traveled to the Department of Education that day was palpable. Many, like Pittsgrove EA member Heidi Maria Brown, fear the influence that corporations have on public education policy today. She spoke about her son Johnny, a second grader who reads at a fifth-grade level but who had just learned how to tie his shoes, a skill many children master in kindergarten.
“I knew from experience not to worry about arbitrary standards and to focus on what was really important,” she said. “We need to remember this when we look at test scores and children.”
Instead, Brown maintained that when it comes to our schools, too many decisions are being made by for-profit entities that “only see dollar signs in the eyes of our children.”
At the same time, educators mourn the creativity being squeezed from the classroom. West Windsor-Plainsboro EA President Debbie Baer shared some of the questions her members have asked her because they feel the need to justify every classroom activity that isn’t closely tied to test-taking ability.
“Are we allowed to sing with the kids?” “Can I still hatch eggs in my classroom?” “What happens if the principal comes in and I am painting with my first graders?” Baer also spoke of teachers who are considering leaving the profession “because they can’t keep doing this to the kids.”
Delran EA President Michael Kaminski delivered one of the most emotional testimonies of the day. He described the lunacy of a principal who told him he was a “master teacher” and that his students were lucky to have him also add that Kaminski could only earn a 3 because the lesson he observed was too teacher-directed.
Kaminski saluted two retired colleagues who spent their careers instilling values such as good citizenship, honesty and integrity in their students. Yet he wondered if they too would be deemed to be only “effective” under this new evaluation system.
But like all great educators, Kaminski offered solutions to the problems he saw before him. The 23-year teaching veteran, who was recently voted by Delran students as “Easiest to Talk To” and “Most Inspirational,” even offered to serve on a new committee to assess the successes and challenges of AchieveNJ.
“We need to slow down and get this right,” he concluded.
NJEA amplifies members’ voices
Over the past several years, NJEA has played an important role in the policy debates about improving public education. In every case, the Association has brought forward the best ideas of members, the men and women who dedicate their lives to educating public school students. In fact, Educators in the Lead has been the tagline for the authentic, research-based ideas NJEA has proposed. Relying on member input and constantly involving members in vetting proposals has been the hallmark of NJEA’s advocacy. These strategies led to the successful 2012 adoption of a fair and progressive tenure and evaluation law, TeachNJ.
Unfortunately, AchieveNJ is not the set of regulations that live up to the law that enjoyed widespread support and was heralded as a much-needed reform. That’s why NJEA has taken unprecedented steps to hear from members and their communities and to act on their interests:
- In January, NJEA commissioned the Mellman Group, a Washington, D.C. research firm, to conduct a telephone poll of a random sample of 600 members and 100 local association presidents. Turn the page to read “Voices from the field,” which provides some results from this poll.
- That study was expanded to survey nearly 1,000 likely voters, 300 of whom were public school parents.
- Last fall, NJEA, the New Jersey Association of Principals and Supervisors (NJASA), and the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA) conducted joint membership surveys. NJEA gathered a research panel of 800 teachers who volunteered to participate in three surveys over the course of the 2013-14 academic year. Results from the first survey have been shared with staff from the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE).
- NJEA has cooperated with a Rutgers University survey currently underway and authorized by the NJDOE. Teachers were recruited by email directly by Rutgers researchers and through an invitation and link to the survey on NJEA’s website.
Educators, parents, and those who would impose reason on a process that is hurting our public schools and our students are speaking clearly. NJEA is listening. What remains is for those in power to hear and respond swiftly.