Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Final Teacher Evaluation Rules. Until They Change.

When my colleagues and I met with New Jersey Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf and his staff in January, he alluded to March 6 as the date when the State Board of Education would be issuing its final rules on teacher evaluation. He reminded us that final rules meant that because of public comments the rules could change, but that we could confidently move ahead with our evaluation system based on what they said. If any were changed significantly, he said, we could also alter ours to adapt to the new rules.

That day is just around the corner. Next week, all interested parties are on notice that they can testify before the State BOE on the new rules, and that this will be the final time that the state board will hear comments. They are then set to consider any last minute changes and adopt the final rules in September. If this seems to be a tight time frame, it is. By design. Unless you're in one of the Pilot I or Pilot II districts, you basically have this spring to work out any kinks in your evaluation plan, test it, get feedback from the faculty and staff, and get ready to fully implement it beginning in September. Curiouser, the state timeline says that all staff must be trained on their chosen system by August 31. So if there are any changes in September...well, that's not on the agenda next week. But it would be fun to ask about it, yes?

Remember that the people I met at the DOE are true believers in this new system and to a person said that the old system was "failing our students and communities." When the Superintendents at our meeting reminded the DOE Assistant Commissioners that their districts had effective evaluation systems in place and that our schools were educating students, the response was that 1. This system is better and 2. You're lying.


One of the assistants, who came from an effective suburban district noted that when he as an assistant principal(!) he came to the conclusion that the manner in which his nationally-noted Middlesex County district evaluated tenured staff members was a "joke" and "didn't really do a good job at identifying failing teachers." Thus, the whole state must now adhere to this gentleman's skewed version of evaluation. It's that bad.

If you can get down to Trenton on March 6, please do, because we need as many voices as we can to remind the state BOE that those of us who work in classrooms have real concerns about the evaluation system and process. Commissioner Cerf believes that he has the BOE in his pocket. Let's make sure that our side has its say.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The 5:22 to Sequestration Station

You can change here for Dysfunction Junction, or take the local, making all stops to Interminable Terminal. Have your tickets ready. If you can afford them.

This latest skirmish over the economy and the role of government is highlighting more than just the usual differences between the parties. It's uncovering the stripped-bare disdain the Republicans have for negotiating with the president and their utter lack of gravity when it comes to exchanging ideas. Yes, the left does not want Obama to back down on anything related to Medicare or Social Security or balancing budget cuts with revenue, but when the other party simply refuses to meet you halfway, they cease to be a responsible partner.

Up to now, the GOP criticism of Obama was that he was playing politics with the sequester, didn't have a specific plan to confront it, and was only looking to blame the Republicans for their obstinacy. And besides which, some said, the cuts will not be as bad as advertised. In fact, they won't be bad at all.

Well, here comes the reality. Governors of both parties are getting plenty nervous about the effects the cuts will have on their still-fragile budgets. They won't bring the government to a standstill, nor will they shut down Washington, which I believe to be the secret Republican fantasy, but they will do something worse. They will be a nuisance and a slow trickle of bad news. They will deny people who need certain services what they need. They might result in layoffs at the state and local levels. In short, they will drain away confidence at a time when we need it to increase. But if that's what the GOP wants, then they'll get it.

If government by enforced austerity was a theory, then I could see that implementing it could have some positive attributes. But all we need to do is look at Europe to see the real world application of destructive government pullbacks. It ain't pretty, and it's getting worse. So why continue to push it? Because the Republican Party is bent not only on destroying itself, but on sticking with ideology at the expense of common sense. I do not question anyone's patriotism or call them disloyal in the way that Senator Ted Cruz did to Chuck Hagel, but I do wonder what motivates the right to follow policies that will have such a negative effect on the country.

I suppose that President Obama's, and the Democrats', worst nightmare would be that the sequester takes effect and the effect is minimal and possibly positive. That would embolden Republicans to continue to push for even more cuts, though not to the military I'm sure, and would discredit and undercut the left's economic arguments. I'm not gambling on that outcome. The economy needs more money to circulate and get spent, not less. Exactly the opposite will begin happening on Friday.

All aboard.

Register your comments at and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The GOP Eats Its Own

Once Chick Hagel is finally confirmed as Secretary of Defense, he should think twice about accepting any lunch invitations from his former GOP colleagues. My fear is that he will become the meal. Yes, friends, the imploding tsunamic A-bomb that is the Republican Party is trying to claim another trophy for its sagging walls, but all they've done is drawn out a fight they've already given up on to a president they never get tired of losing to.

You would think that a decorated Vietnam veteran who served as a Senator would be a lock to be confirmed even in the polarized political world we live in. Apparently, though, his maverick denunciations of Bush era foreign policy including a spot-on critique of why, exactly, we were in Iraq has led the true maverick, John McCain, to sputter and croak about service and events like Benghazi that have nothing to do with Hagel. Then you have the reincarnation of Senator Joe McCarthy, Ted Cruz of Texas, who decided that disagreeing with Hagel was not enough and that he had to smear him by alleging that Hagel not only took money from Iran, but might have a problem with Israel's foreign and domestic policies.

I don't have to justify my support of Israel from a religious, cultural or moral perspective, but I have a real problem with the Netanyahu government's policies on settlements and their hypocritical support of the ultra-religious parties he needs to keep his coalition. Religious governments of any stripe are dangerous, discriminatory and extreme, and the Orthodox who want to impose strict Jewish law on Israel are no exception. For the conservative Christian right in this country to blindly support Israel because they would protect Christian historical shrines is self-serving, and brooking absolutely no dissent is dangerous in any group.

Chuck Hagel's questioning of Israel's policies is what any good Defense Secretary would do. It's what Hillary Clinton did as Secretary of State. Friends are always friends, but there are times when they can go too far. That's when true friends tell them the truth. It doesn't seem as if Netanyahu or the radical Republicans understand that message, and recent elections in Israel saw a backlash against Netanyahu. Israel must survive and I know that the United States government will do everything it can to ensure that. GOP questioning of Obama's and Hagel's motives is a red herring (in cream sauce).

Cruz's accusations against Hagel's patriotism relating to Iran was beyond the pale and rightly earned Cruz a back room scolding by both Republicans and Democrats. He defended himself by saying that he was elected to shake things up. That he did, but not in a way that will help him in the long run with his fellow Senators. I'm sure the Democrats will highlight this Tea Party behavior in 2014. John McCain's one-man Bengahzi crusade might satisfy his supporters, but it's only postponed the inevitable confirmation.

The next issue will be the sequester and the massive cuts that are on the way on March 1. Again, the GOP is ready to sink the economy in a misguided attempt to end programs that most Americans want and voted for in 2012. My hope is that President Obama will make an attempt at a pragmatic bargain to forestall the cuts, but if not, we know where the blame lies.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Teacher Evaluation Skeptics? Don't Doubt Us

An independent report of the first year pilot of the state's teacher evaluation system shows that teachers are skeptical that it measures their effectiveness.

Of course we're skeptical. Why wouldn't we be? The task force that recommended this evaluation system had not one NJEA member on it. That didn't surprise me given the Governor's antipathy towards effective teachers with a consistent voice behind them, but the consequences of that decision are fairly obvious. If you don't own it, you don't feel connected to it. And when you know that the people who do own it don't respect you or your profession and ridicule you when you speak out and blame you for conducting association business in front of third graders, then skeptical is a rather mild term to describe what you're really thinking.

What makes this system even  more suspect is that the report shows that twice as many administrators as teachers approved of the evaluations. What's worse, the report didn't even discuss using student test scores to measure teacher effectiveness. I would surmise that teachers would be even more skeptical of the system if that was included, but only because using test scores is a terrible idea.

Let's all remember that there is not one credible teacher effectiveness model that uses student test scores as a reliable measure of classroom instruction. Even in New York State (yes, right next door!) they're finding it difficult to make the numbers work. But no matter. We have a Commissioner of Education and a staff of true believers to guide us through the implementation process, and their attitude is that if teachers would only give the evaluation system a chance, we'd find that it's a fair system.

This quote is indicative of Trenton's attitude:
“While we never expected the first year of the pilot to be perfect, we are motivated by the finding that educators are having more meaningful conversations than ever before about effective teaching, which of course is the first step to helping continuously improve student outcomes,” said state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf in the press release.

I'm terribly sorry to be right, but teachers have been having meaningful conversations about effective teaching longer than you've been alive, Mr. Commissioner. We care deeply about student learning and outcomes, and we engage in deep, soul-searching thinking about how we can improve. The difference between our approach and yours is that we know that using test scores and trying to distill us down to a phrase or a number is misguided, inappropriate, demeaning to our profession, and runs counter to the educational literature, which we've also read, thank you very much.

When I met with the Commissioner and his assistants in January, each one of them noted, at some point in the almost 4 hour conversation, that the TEACH NJ law was passed unanimously by the Legislature, as if this was some kind of ratification of the law's wisdom, when all it really meant was that elected officials who don't actually read a law, and those who do, have no real idea about how it will work in practice or what a bad idea it is. Or both, most likely. And when I made this point, I was able to get these DOE officials to entertain the idea that maybe they should go back to the Legislature and ask them for more time to implement it and to revisit the use of computer-based standardized tests as 50% of a teacher's evaluation (and the tie-breaking criteria at that). That tells me that they realize how much concern teachers have about this bill. Do I expect it to happen? Of course not. But they thought about it. 

At this point, skeptical educators should address their concerns about the evaluation system to the State Board of Education, since it is responsible for writing and issuing the implementation rules which schools have to follow. To make matters more interesting, Commissioner Cerf seems to think that he has the Board in his pocket, having remarked that educators have their supporters, but he has his, and that although we can count 100,000 teachers, 600 districts, and about two million parents on our side, that just doesn't mean anything because his board has supported him on everything.

If, like me, you're struck by the condescension, then it's time to act. We have everything to lose including our self-respect.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Monday, February 4, 2013

Talking Thomas Jefferson With Author Jon Meacham

I recently had the pleasure and honor of interviewing author Jon Meacham about his book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power for Audiofile Magazine.

The interview is below. Here is a link to my sound review of the book on Soundcloud.



Our nation has always had a place in its culture for public historians. These are people like Barbara Tuchman, Theodore White, and David McCullough, who can make history come alive for the general reader while also producing books that are rigorously researched and connect the past with the present.

Welcome to the club, Jon Meacham.

Not yet 45, Meacham is an executive editor at Random House, a former co-anchor of the public affairs broadcast “Need to Know on PBS” and former editor of NEWSWEEK. His book, AMERICAN LION: ANDREW JACKSON IN THE WHITE HOUSE, was published by Random House in 2008 and in 2009 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Meacham is also the author of two other New York Times bestsellers--AMERICAN GOSPEL: GOD, THE FOUNDING FATHERS, AND THE MAKING OF A NATION, and FRANKLIN AND WINSTON: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF AN EPIC FRIENDSHIP, about the relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill, which was named a book of the year by the Los Angeles Times and won the Churchill Centre’s 2005 Emery Reves Award for the best book of the year on Churchill.

Meacham’s latest book, THOMAS JEFFERSON: THE ART OF POWER, is not just another biography of our third president. He focuses on Jefferson the politician and philosopher and adds texture to what we already know about this complex man. “My goal was to try and walk with Jefferson and see things from his perspective, who his mentors were and how his education affected him,” Meacham says.

“His presidency hasn’t translated as clearly to the public as his other accomplishments, but he was president during tumultuous times, and although he didn’t see himself as a successful executive, the public certainly did. After all, they elected Jefferson or Jeffersonian politicians in every election but one from 1800 to 1840.” He writes that Jefferson understood the art of compromise and governed as a Renaissance man, applying the arts and sciences to the political realm.

Meacham wants us to see Jefferson as a man of ideas and of the Enlightenment, but he also notes that Jefferson was a sensuous man with big appetites when it came to women, wine, and gaining life experiences. “We have an image of Jefferson as a clinical man who was somehow removed from
emotion. I learned that he was intensely human and interested in other humans.

I could see myself having a glass of wine with him. I couldn’t say the same thing about George Washington.”

The audiobook is narrated by actor Edward Herrmann, whom Meacham requested. “I think he’s brilliant,” Meacham says. “He made the text better. The audiobook universe is so fascinating. I have never listened to a book I’ve also read and not had a different experience. Edward Herrmann is a central element of the authorial experience. He’s the translator. I had listened to his work before and knew what he could do. I respect the skills I don’t have that he does.”

For his efforts, Herrmann was awarded an Earphones Award for this book. To Meacham, that’s proof that the right narrator can enhance any written work. “I think serious readers value audiobooks. For a writer, it’s one of the only ways you can end up with a coauthor who is interpreting your words. I want people to feel that their investment in time and money is well spent. I want to repay that to the reader.”

All but one of Meacham’s previous books are on audio, but he wants all of his forthcoming books to be recorded as well as written. He knows that with all of the technology, there’s only so much mind space available for people to read or listen to or view specific media. With this book, he’s provided our minds, and ears, with an opportunity to learn and enjoy ourselves. --Robert I. Grundfest

© AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine

Photo © Damien Donck