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

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