Ready, fire, aim

Published on Tuesday, November 27, 2012

EditorialIf it hasn’t done so already, your district must select or create a state-approved teacher practice evaluation instrument by the end of this month. Nine months from now, that instrument has to be up and running as a new evaluation system for all teachers will be implemented statewide in September 2013.

New Jersey isn’t the only state that has turned its focus to teacher quality, but it is among the first to implement a new, statewide evaluation system. That’s why it was included in a new report from the Center for American Progress that looked at the capacity of state education agencies and their effectiveness in implementing this reform.

“The State of Teacher Evaluation Reform,” was authored by Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University. McGuinn noted that while it’s difficult to compare these new teacher evaluation systems because each state is so different, several lessons can be learned from these early efforts. What remains to be seen, however, is if the N.J. Department of Education (NJDOE) will heed these lessons.

One key obstacle to an effective system is time. According to McGuinn, New Jersey is the only state that has piloted its new evaluation system before statewide implementation, and that is a good thing. But after giving 22 pilot districts up to two years to put the new system into practice, it remains to be seen how the other nearly 600 districts will fare with a much shorter timeline. Many districts have been building capacity for longer than that, but there is little doubt that a good number of districts have not. The NJDOE needs to be sure that teacher evaluation does not operate to the detriment of quality instruction in those districts that have not properly trained administrators and fully trained teachers in the new system.

The mother of all obstacles, of course, is the use of student standardized test scores in teacher evaluation. While the TeachNJ Act provided that these scores could not be the predominant factor in determining a teacher’s rating, the exact procedures on how student performance will be folded into teacher evaluation is far from settled. There are several critical considerations, not the least of which is what to do about the 20 percent of teachers work in a grade or subject area where standardized tests do not exist.

Several NJDOE officials have stated that the student test score piece of the evaluation puzzle remains elusive. At a recent roundtable on teacher evaluation, Tim Matheny, NJDOE director of evaluation in the Division of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness, even acknowledged that the research proving that the use of student growth percentiles actually improves instruction is far from conclusive. Yet the NJDOE marches onward in its quest to define all students and at least some of their teachers on the basis of their standardized test scores.

No wonder New Jersey’s teachers anxious about this new system. It’s one thing to hold teachers accountable for how they prepare students for a test. But to hold a teacher accountable for how well those students perform on a test is like blaming the doctor for a patient who continues to smoke.

In his report, McGuinn quoted Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teacher Quality who addressed the issues of timelines, efficiency, and fairness. “Finding the sweet spot between the real urgency and need to do this as fast as we can, and recognizing that we can’t do it so fast that we make a mess of this—there is a huge tension there and a real danger of undermining teacher confidence in the system,” Jacobs stated.

In March, the NJDOE is expected to introduce the final amendments to the professional standards code that will establish exactly how student test scores will be used in teacher evaluation. Let’s hope NJDOE officials heed the warnings of the experts in teacher quality and respect existing research instead of basing policy on political rhetoric.

See for yourself

Go to the N.J. Department of Education website at www.state.nj.us/education, and click on “Educator Evaluation” for more on the pilot, the Educator Effectiveness Task Force Report, and other resources.

Visit www.americanprogress.org and click on reports or search for McGuinn to read “The State of Teacher Evaluation Reform” by Drew University associate professor Patrick McGuinn.

Find more resources to use when participating in your district’s selection or creation of a teacher practice model, including NJEA’s position on teacher evaluation, research about the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and merit pay.

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