Voices from the fieldEach fall educators and their students begin a yearlong journey together, a time filled with the promise of growth and success. Fresh challenges are part of the story of a new year and for the most part they are welcomed because learning is like that—sometimes it’s a smooth ride, sometimes it’s bumpy.

For the 2013-14 academic year, words like growth and success took on new meaning for educators because a fresh set of rules defining their own growth and success were being implemented. The AchieveNJ regulations set forth new and puzzling ways of quantifying learning and, for the first time, turned what had been an organic process into a mechanical one.  

Changes like this are underway around the country and they hit home on day one in New Jersey as the next wave of education reform arrived. Research reveals how educators are faring and whether the challenges they are encountering are simply bumps in the road or potholes as deep as those found on our winter-ravaged roads.

Teachers across the nation are facing similar challenges

For a big picture look, a large-scale national survey of over 20,000 public school teachers, including 600 New Jersey teachers, undertaken by the partnership of Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, asked teachers about their most significant challenges. By far, the most serious was “constantly changing demands on teachers and students” identified by 82 percent of teachers in the national sample and 83 percent of New Jersey’s teachers. A majority of the nation’s teachers (51 percent) said “not enough time to collaborate with colleagues” as the next most serious obstacle they faced; a larger majority of New Jersey teachers (57 percent) voiced the same concern. These two challenges far surpassed concerns that usually top teachers’ lists—lack of parental support, class sizes that are too large, or limited earning potential, for example. Still, by the widest margin, nearly 90 percent of teachers agreed the rewards of teaching outweigh the challenges.

Voices from the fieldAnd, the finding in this survey that got the most media attention was the degree to which teachers’ job satisfaction was related to their sense of whether their opinions were heard. We learned that teachers who were the most satisfied were those who felt their voices were heard at the district, state, and national level. In the national sample, two-thirds, (69 percent) felt their opinions were heard in their own school; just one-third felt heard at the district level. Only 5 percent said they have been heard at the state level, 2 percent at the national level, and fully 25 percent said they haven’t been heard at any level. As depicted in Figure 1, New Jersey teachers felt even more left out—only 56 percent say they were heard in their school, 25 percent in their district, and only 3 percent at the state level.

In an era of constant change, one important lesson for policy-makers is to make a place at the table for educators. They are accepting of change but are growing weary of change happening to them not with or by them.

NJEA listens and learns members’ concerns

NJEA has been gathering member input to understand what New Jersey teachers are facing and to seek policy adjustments that reflect their best thinking. To say New Jersey’s teachers are weary is an understatement. In a telephone poll conducted in January by the Mellman Group, 82 percent say teacher morale has worsened over the past few years; 87 percent say their feelings about their job are the same or worse just this year. Figure 2 displays these findings.

The top reasons driving members’ negative morale are the lack of respect and appreciation for school employees and the emphasis on rating teachers over helping students.

And members are clear about their top priorities for NJEA—to press for a fair and effective teacher evaluation system and to work to stop the overuse of standardized tests. Six months into the implementation of AchieveNJ, teachers give it low marks—nearly two-thirds (63 percent) view it unfavorably; 76 percent oppose it outright (Figure 3). Veteran teachers hold the most negative views; 4 in 10 of the newest teachers, those with 0-5 years experience, hold negative views as well. Confidence in the new system is extremely low; just one in six teachers (17 percent) believe AchieveNJ is on track to meet its goals.  

Voices from the fieldTeachers are doubtful about other aspects of the evaluation system:

  • Just one in five believe the system will fairly and accurately determine which teachers are effective or ineffective.
  • Only 22 percent agree that the new system will help students learn by making sure teachers are doing their jobs.
  • Just over 70 percent say parents and community members haven’t been provided with information about the new system.
  • Four in 10 teachers say they haven’t been provided with adequate training by their district.
  • More than a third said that the collaboration between teachers and principals hasn’t produced student growth objectives that are understood by teachers, principals, and evaluators.

A majority of teachers are concerned that their districts lack the financial resources to meet new state requirements and have adequate administrative staff to carry out its demands.

The good news is that NJEA members agree that New Jersey’s current course can be corrected.

Six in 10 of New Jersey’s teachers believe whatever problems exist can be fixed, and nearly one-third (32 percent) believe that strongly. Members give NJEA a clear imperative: seek a delay in implementing the system until members’ concerns are addressed.

Voices from the field

Concerns about excessive testing are front and center

The component of AchieveNJ that draws the most criticism from teachers is “evaluating teachers based on multiple measures of teacher practice and student performance, with 30 percent of the evaluation coming from standardized test scores.” The vast majority (86 percent) opposed this aspect; 68 percent opposed it strongly. There is strong agreement that standardized tests have a role to play in public education, but teachers draw the line when those tests determine their fate as AchieveNJ prescribes.

There is near unanimous agreement that the evaluation system underway is imposing more paperwork and bureaucracy that interfere with the real work of educating students, that teachers will be forced to narrow their teaching to match tests, and that the system is being pushed through too fast without giving teachers and principals the enough time to develop workable plans. When teachers evaluated these statements, 9 in 10 of them agreed—among the strongest consensus in the study’s findings.

And, like their peers in the Scholastic/Gates survey, New Jersey teachers are most positive about their building-level administrators’ role, giving lower marks to district-wide administrators and the lowest marks to the New Jersey Department of Education.

Voices from the field

Efforts to improve teacher evaluation must begin with teachers

In poll after poll, the public and parents agree that teachers are the experts who know how to make schools better. It’s a sad irony that in the midst of the most sweeping changes to affect teachers in recent years, research finds teachers struggling to make sense of those changes. It is extremely disheartening  that their job satisfaction has been dampened because they feel their voice has been silenced. Teachers lack confidence they and their students are being treated fairly by the very reforms that purport to make them excel is extremely disheartening.

NJEA is listening intently to members’ concerns and taking their lead in proposing sensible change. Teachers and educational support professionals are stepping up, defending their students and schools who are being blamed for test scores that mostly measure societal factors, not educational effort. Parents and family members are raising their voices against the pressures and shortcomings of high-stakes testing. The only way to get education reform right is for NJEA members to join together and demand that their voices be heard.

Mary Ann Jandoli is an associate director of education and evaluation research in NJEA’s Research and Economic Services Division. She can be reached at mjandoli@njea.org.