Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Teacher Evaluation Traveling Road Show Plays Trenton

Bright lights, big city, prime time. Yes, the Teacher Evaluation Traveling Road Show played Trenton on Tuesday, and the reviews are in. Here's mine.

Halfway through the meeting yesterday that Madison Superintendent Dr. Michael A. Rossi (and four of his Superintendent colleagues), Madison Board of Education President Lisa Ellis, and yours truly had with Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf and three of his Assistant Commissioners, we learned that the DOE "was taken aback" by Dr. Rossi's letter because, as the Commissioner said, "we really need to come from the same set of facts."

What became apparent was that the DOE officials believed that Dr. Rossi didn't have the facts and that, worse, those facts were available and that he must be, well, unfacty.

But then a most curious thing happened. We asked our questions again, and we got answers.  Answers that we hadn't really heard before. Answers that led to more questions. Answers that underlined the fact that the state hadn't given us all of the information they could have. Answers that would...wait for us implement an effective evaluation system in our schools.  Score.

For example:

We were concerned about issues surrounding students with IEPs who might need accommodations to successfully take the PARCC tests. The answer is that all 22 states that participate in PARCC will need to follow the same protocols. There will be no deviation by state or district. What's good for Kentucky is evidently also good for New Jersey. We raised the issue of what happens if the protocols don't accommodate a particular student's IEP. Sorry. One size fits all.

Students who have trouble keyboarding will have difficulty with the PARCC tests. According to the DOE, "we see implementation challengers." I'll say. There will be draft policies by spring that apply to visually impaired students who might have trouble taking a test on a computer, but that's all we have to look forward to for guidance in this area.

We also learned that once the PARCC tests are up and running in 2015, they will only be used to measure grades 4 through 8 in Language Arts and Mathematics. That's it. Therefore, only about 20% of New Jersey teachers will have the evaluation piece covered by PARCC tests. No high school subjects will be PARCC'ed for at least three years.

What does this mean for the rest of the teachers in the district whose evaluations will not be measured by a standardized test? Teachers and administrators are supposed to work together to determine an appropriate student growth measure for any given academic year. Art teachers, for example, can use a student's portfolio, history teachers can use a pre and post test or document analysis assignments, and mathematics teachers can use a project or series of quizzes as their evaluation piece. In short, any teacher can use any classroom measure to determine student growth. Further, these student growth measures do not have to apply to all of a teacher's students. A teacher can choose to use a specific cohort of students and measure their growth over a specified period of time, probably September to March so that the data is available for the summative evaluation in May. This is a key piece of a teacher's yearly evaluation, 50%, and should be designed very carefully.

Evaluating nurses, guidance counselors and other non-teaching employees is "emerging" at this point, which means that there's nothing formal from the state. Districts are again allowed to have administrators work with their staffs to determine an appropriate growth measure.

As for our technological concerns about PARCC (it doesn't work with Internet Explorer and Microsoft will stop supporting Windows XP), we were told that it's up to each district to purchase or transition to a platform that will support the test. The DOE did say that starting in February, PARCC will allow a district to input information about their system and PARCC will recommend what levels of technology they'll need and approximately how much it will cost to implement or upgrade.

Our request for more time to implement and teach the Common Core Standards was rebuffed out of hand because the timelines are a function of the legislation, and the legislature has no plans to alter it. The Common Core is here and we'd better get used to it. I put up a spirited defense and I think I got their attention by noting that testing data is always preferable to starting a live system cold, and that every district should have the opportunity to pilot their evaluation program to work out the problems. Dr. Rossi and I will speak further with one of the Assistant Commissioners about some timing flexibility and I will post updates as I get them.

But we also got some of the same vague answers that have plagued this rollout from the beginning. We were told that the state wouldn't have the regulations ready until March 6, and that we could use those regulations to finally implement our evaluation system. Unless those regulations change, of course, but Commissioner Cerf assured us that they wouldn't change all that much between then and September when the State Board of Education is set to adopt them. Unless, of course, they do change. In which case we'll need to, um, change our system. But otherwise, all systems are go.

The DOE was clearly upset and annoyed by Dr. Rossi's letter, in large part because they believe that they've given the districts enough information to adequately plan for the TEACHNJ law. More than once, one of the assistant commissioners and Cerf himself made the point that this was a 3 year process that began in 2010 and that districts should have started to plan for the changes. Assistant Commissioner Tracey Severns made an interesting, and telling, point when she opined that wealthy districts were the slowest to implement the changes because they didn't feel the urgency that "A or B" districts did. Wealthy districts were used to high achievement, she said, so they didn't see the need to rush to make changes. She prefaced her words by saying that she wasn't casting aspersions on those of us from wealthy districts, but we couldn't think of any other reason for her to say those things other than as a condescending comment on our tardiness. We did have a representative from a not-so-wealthy district who was also finding it very challenging to implement the law, but that contradiction to Severn's point didn't merit a mention.

Commissioner Cerf stuck to the broad outlines of why we needed an evaluation system "with teeth," and he noted that there were only a handful of tenure charge cases brought in the last ten years as evidence of why we needed a new system, clearly implying that there were far more ineffective teachers in our schools than there were cases. He also mentioned that bringing tenure charges under the old system was prohibitively expensive, but never put together the obvious conclusion: districts had ineffective teachers, but it wasn't the ineffectiveness that prohibited them from bringing charges, it was the money. Presumably the new, less expensive system will solve that and unfortunately enable districts to bring charges against others who are effective, but are also difficult employees.

These issues aside, we were impressed by the knowledge, commitment and energy the Assistant Commissioners, Bari Erlichson, Chief Performance Officer, and Peter Shulman, Chief Talent Officer, provided us. Erlichson certainly knows how to read and interpret data and Shulman understands the policy's implications. And he did make me feel better by saying at one point, "This is not about merit pay and firing teachers." They answered our questions as best they could and understood that we had concerns, even if they did say that we should have aired them two years ago.

So what's next? Administrators and teachers need to make sure they work together to create a viable evaluation system and make sure it's implemented in September. Contact the DOE with your district's concerns. Ask questions. Guess where necessary.  And for heaven's sakes, learn the facts. Until they change.

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