Myths and Truths of Teacher Evals

AchieveNJ and Teacher Evaluations

The new evaluation system implemented by the state of New Jersey is serious, and educators across the state are feeling incredible pressure.  Myths abound as to the focus, purpose, and effectiveness of the evaluations, and the truth is as complicated as the new system itself. Many in the public arena interpret teachers’ criticisms of the new process as whining, and some go as far as to accuse teachers of resisting evaluation on the whole, insinuating if not stating that teachers do not want to be assessed because they fear being found incompetent. But it’s easy to make such broad statements when you don’t have the facts. There are a lot of myths going around – so what is the truth?

Myth: Teachers do not want to be evaluated.

Truth: Not true. Teachers always have been evaluated. We’re very accustomed to it. Having an administrator observe a class is nothing new, and many teachers welcome the opportunity to introduce principals and supervisors to the wonderful things that students do in the classroom.

But we want the evaluations to be fair. The criteria for what needs to be included within a teacher evaluation has changed since the advent of Race to the Top, and New Jersey has answered by developing AchieveNJ.  This is a highly complex system that includes classroom observations, Student Growth Objectives (SGOs), and Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs). While this seems fine on the surface, problems can arise if any administration chooses to use the observation portion as retaliation against teachers for practicing free speech or when the state introduces SGPs aligned with brand new tests (PARCC) that have never been used before and about which there is no information about accuracy or reliability.

Myth: Classroom observation criteria are fair and objective.

Truth: Well, that largely depends upon how one defines “fair,” and observations are always subjective, which is not necessarily a bad thing. There are 5 observation rubrics available to all districts in NJ, and Montclair is using the Marshall Rubric. There is too much to summarize here, which implies that there is too much. Read the rubric; how much of a difference is there between earning a 3 or 4 in most categories? Between a 1 and a 2? Look at the number of categories. How can any teacher show all of this during any given observation? Can any administrator see all of this? If any administrator in any part of the state wanted to target a teacher, he or she could easily do so, as teachers can defend themselves on evaluation procedures but not on evaluation ratings on the rubrics. Whatever an administrator says, goes.

Myth: No administrator would be so vindictive as to use evaluations to target specific teachers.

Truth: Yes, some would. While we have yet to see a case brought to public attention through the courts in Montclair, it has happened in Newark. Read about it here.

Myth: SGPs are a fair way to use data.

Truth: SGPs, which are a form of Value Added Measurement (VAM), are student test data used in a formula to impact a teacher’s overall rating. But using VAMs is a complicated and expensive process, one that is known to be harmful to schools in many ways if not done properly. (See links to articles about VAMs on our Articles page.) According to the AchieveNJ website, “SGP is a measure of how much a student improves his or her NJ ASK [PARCC] score from one year to the next compared to students across the state who had a similar test score history.” [There is no PARCC history. How can this count for 10% this year?] The state then takes the median test score of a teacher’s students to use. There are many factors that affect student test scores – from home environment to socioeconomic status to whether or not the student ate breakfast on the day of the test, to name a few – but these are not taken into account.

Myth: SGOs help teachers focus their instruction on standards.

Truth: Instruction is, as mandated by the state, centered on standards. It has been for many years, since New Jersey implemented the Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS) in 1996, so the assertion of the NJ DOE that SGOs will help teachers focus on standards is untrue – we already do. Since the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (which replaced the CCCS for ELA and Math), instruction has been aligned with these as well. Evaluation requirements demand a teacher to focus on one standard for each SGO and to complete a fairly long process of documentation. The issue is that the standards, again, are already being addressed. The SGO requirement does not cause teachers to bring in new methods or learn new content or strategies; it does cause teachers to spend a lot of time documenting what is already documented through our lesson plans, which are checked by the administration regularly. Because SGOs must document student growth, teachers must establish a baseline at the beginning of the school year; this is why teachers are now giving tests and assessments in September that they know the students will not do well on. If we have not yet taught a skill or concept, of course the pre-assessment scores will be low. We do not want to waste our time or the children’s time with these pre-assessments, but we have no choice.

Myth: Teachers getting bad evaluations must be bad teachers.

Truth: Not at all. In NJ and in other states that have adopted these evaluations, very good teachers are being put on probation and let go. Think of the teachers who volunteer each year to work with the students who struggle the most. No matter their effort, if test scores are low, they are to blame. Teachers who work with English Language Learners and Special Needs students are also at greater risk for their SGPs and SGOs coming in with low scores. Test scores also reflect student placement. If an administrator schedules a teacher  with many overcrowded classes filled with students with low skill levels, that teacher will do poorly on the SGP (and possibly in the observation as well). Under the guidelines of AchieveNJ, two consecutive ”ineffective” ratings or one “ineffective” and one “partially effective” rating will trigger tenure action by the state DOE. This means that the state can revoke teachers’ tenure even if their administrators want the teachers to be retained; while a district can challenge the state’s tenure revocation, it is limited in what it can do.

There is nothing, not one thing, in the evaluation system that takes into account how factors outside the school affect student performance.

Myth: You’re whining.

Truth: We’re not. Our jobs are at stake.



Board of Ed Public Comments 5

Board of Education Meeting 11/17/2014

By Monica Lavosky

During your visit to the high school, Dr. McCormack, at our November faculty meeting, you mentioned that we should prepare for cuts in the budget. As a teacher, Montclair resident and mother of a senior student, I would like to know what programs and/or faculty this would affect. You also said that there is no longer a surplus and I would like to know what happened to those funds.

The bonus you received above your salary of $177, 500 is almost equal to the salary of a paraprofessional. I believe there are better ways to appropriate our funds to avoid the aforementioned budget cuts.

For the salary of your Public Relations Officer, Matt Frankel, who was recently hired, we could hire another teacher. In the World Language Department, for example, many of our classes are bulging at the seams, especially in Spanish. We have to work to decrease class size across all grades and disciplines for the benefit of our students.

Although I love coming to school every day to teach my students and meet with my colleagues to create engaging lessons, I do not enjoy my time in the restroom facilities. The ratio of stalls to staff members at the high school, is about 300 to 8. We must appropriate the necessary funds to building better bathroom facilities for the staff, that have enough stalls and that meet a healthy level of cleanliness with proper ventilation.

Finally, concerning the PAARC standardized exams and the Core Curriculum Standards, I would like to quote Dr. Chris Tienken, Assoc. Prof. at Seton Hall University and co-author of ‘The School Reform Landscape: Fraud, Myth and Lies’, who spoke recently at a Montclair Cares for Schools forum and said: “All these standardized reforms… rest on pillars of sand.” He further added that ‘one-size-fits-all curriculum standards’ seeks to homogenize education. “Local school boards have been reduced to state adopted polices.” And he added, “Testing is not learning. Test preparation is not teaching.”


Good Reads

Good Recent Articles and Blog posts:

From the National Education Association,, on Paraprofessionals:

By John Rosales

“Paraeducators definitely impact student achievement when they are trained in their job roles and responsibilities and receive appropriate supervision from their teacher…When teacher and paraeducators teams are trained together on particular curriculum or instructional strategies students can make impressive academic gains.”


From With a Brooklyn Accent on Charter Schools in New York:

A letter written by Brian De Vale

“None of the unqualified folks that you consistently  helped obtain waivers  to run the system over the past dozen years… ever possessed the required certification to hold their positions. You seem to be running an affirmative action program for the rich and unqualified.”

From the New Jersey Education Association:

The NJEA has published a chart that shows the estimated time on task for the PARCC assessments, grade by grade, including the March Performance Based Assessments and the April-May End of Year assessments.

Click here to see chart.

Board of Ed Public Comments 2

Board of Education Meeting 11/17/2014

By Margaret Sararco

We are fighting to maintain a creative approach to teaching in our classrooms. Everyday we are fighting for our students.  Things are so rosy when we come to the Board of Education meetings, but our truth, the one we live everyday, is different than that.

There is an ever-growing climate of harassment, intimidation and silence. We see it here at these meetings.  If you want more clarity on what goes on in the district, I am asking that you invite schools to present at the meetings again.  Otherwise,  you exclude the educators’ voices that do not reside in Montclair.  Silence is golden, is an out-dated proverb and has no place in our progressive town.

There is a disconnect between information shared with parents and teachers.

We still do not have quality professional development, instead we have trainings that many are asked to turnkey without sufficient understanding about what they are training.  Then we receive an onslaught of documents from Central Services.

I am saddened to report that this is not the town I moved to 22 years ago. The focus of the district no longer embraces programs we held dear to us. Instead its focus on data mining, testing,  testing protocols and testing in general are draining our students, teachers and parents alike. We do not have any complaints with our son’s teachers, who work tirelessly to meet their students’ needs, but teachers are burning out all over the district. Morale is low, ladies and gentlemen.

Enough, is enough. Stop trying to break us. We need the support of the Montclair Board of Education to change this dynamic.


Board of Ed Public Comments 1

Board of Education Meeting Comments 11/17/2014

By Lynn Fedele

Central Services has been very busy lately trying to sell the benefits of the PARCC to the Montclair community. Having recently attended a PARCC workshop and having read Superintendent MacCormack’s newsletter, I find the process of promoting the PARCC to be fraught with unknowns and inconsistencies that reveal Central Services’ support for the new, untried, untested PARCC to be deeply problematic.

At the recent middle school PARCC presentation, Ms. Gail Clark answered “We don’t know” to questions at times, and I appreciate her honesty. What was troubling was the frequency of that answer because “We don’t know” came in response to questions about how the PARCC is developed and scored.

I do not blame Ms. Clark for these non-answers, as frequently on the PARCC website itself, they admit to not knowing some very important things about their own tests. For instance, how are they graded?: “PARCC is exploring a hybrid approach to scoring that includes scoring by both machines and humans.” In other words, they don’t know. In response to what kind of data teachers will receive, PARCC says “the PARCC states are working to develop detailed descriptors.”  They’re working on it. They do not know.

Yet data is one of Central Services’ key selling points. In Dr. MacCormack’s newsletter titled “Why PARCC?” she states that these assessments “are said to provide a more thorough examination of student development than prior tests.” They are “said to.” By whom? On what basis? These assessments have never been given and have no published cut score. Adding to the questionable status of future data is the tests’ structure, as seen in the PARCC’s test blueprints on their website. While there is more writing, there are fewer questions, which weakens their reliability in statistical analysis. Additionally, many questions cover more than one standard. For instance, in the grades 3-5 ELA test, the 3rd task has 5 multiple choice questions* that cover “any combination of standards 1,2,3,5,7,9.” That’s 5 questions, 6 standards. So there’s overlap. In fact, according to the blueprints, almost all ELA and many math test items cover more than one standard, with some covering 5 or 6 standards. If a student gets a question wrong, how can anyone know which standard or standards the student is not meeting? We don’t know.

In essence, in addition to many other concerns surrounding the PARCC, the basic idea that we will have better data is unfounded. Our district must implement PARCC as it is a state mandate; to do so unquestioningly would be foolish; to do so enthusiastically borders on propaganda. Adopting the CCSS and the PARCC at the state level was a political decision. At the local level, it is incumbent upon all parents and educators to protect children and their interests. There should never be blind support for an untried, ambiguous program about which there is so much that we don’t know.

*PARCC does not use the term “multiple choice.” These questions are labeled Evidence-Based Selected Responses and Technology Enhanced Constructed Responses.


PARCC: Pearson’s Weapon of Choice

By John Wodnick

For over twenty years, I’ve taught high school English, and I’ve always tried to make my classroom a place where students might experience the joy of intellectual exploration and discovery.  I teach literature because I have felt the transformative power of great novels, plays and poems on my own consciousness, and I’m eager to give young students that same inspiring experience.  Such experiences are slowly but surely being rooted out of our current educational system, mainly because they’re difficult to measure, and the PARCC is just the latest and most potent weapon yet designed to eliminate them, mainly because they can’t be monetized.


Taking the PARCC on Sunday here in Montclair in the company of many other thoughtful adults, I experienced the confining and artificial nature of trying to read literature closely in the context of standardized multiple-choice testing.  What I figured out in the course of this experience is that the PARCC’s main value is to create more market share for itself.  It certainly isn’t to inspire in students any great love of literature, or to get them to think very deeply about the world they live in.  This is because it is a measurement tool, and not an educational tool, and the manic desire to measure every aspect of learning is, sadly and ironically, depriving students of much of what makes learning valuable.


This mania for measurement has political and economic consequences, as well as educational ones.  The more we measure a school’s success by its standardized test scores, the more we disempower the community that school serves, disempower the educators serving that community, and ultimately, harm the students we’re trying to serve.  Measuring educational success through test scores is anti-democratic, and anti-student, and anti-parent.  It fosters an attitude of distrust between administrators and teachers and pushes all decision-making authority upwards towards a centralized power, often one that resides outside the district.  You can read heartbreaking stories about how this process is playing out in Newark by reading Bob Braun’s Ledger, or by following the facebook page of the Newark Students’ Union, or even by reading the national coverage the situation in Newark recently received on


Those at the top of the power structure these tests help to preserve use many strategies to maintain their authority.  Questions are perceived as threats, and these threats are eliminated insidiously, by reframing the debate in ways that marginalize them.  Skeptics about the value of standardized tests are labeled as being against academic rigor.  Those who wish to maintain democratic control over their local districts are dismissed as rabble-rousing radicals.  Marketers learned these tricks long ago; politicians understand them.  They are very powerful and very effective– they just aren’t all that worthwhile if your goal is to create profound learning experiences that make great classrooms and great teachers memorable to real individual students.  In seeking to root out mostly mythical bad teachers, those who use tests to control education are also rooting out greatness, risk-taking, adventure, and the inspiring experience of discovery.  They are enforcing mediocrity for the sake of making outcomes easy to measure.  Tests imposed from above are self-perpetuating and self-justifying devices of social control.  Why must we test?  Because we need to make sure students are doing well on tests.  This is not education.  But it does ensure that gullible districts who think that only measurable outcomes matter will become great customers for the makers of the PARCC.


Don’t believe that this is about profits?  Don’t take it from me– here’s Glen Moreno, Chairman of Pearson, quoted directly from Pearson’s own 2013 annual report: “As the world’s leading learning company we are in an increasingly strong position to take advantage of this demand and deliver products and services that measurably improve learning outcomes for our customers and learners. I am also confident that this will positively impact shareholder value.” Measurably improving learning outcomes means testing testing testing, and that means positively impacting shareholder value.


Ultimately, what the designers of the PARCC are proposing is to replace many hours of valuable class time with many hours of oppressive testing.  They are eliminating countless hours where students might be encouraged to confront deep questions about their own existence or discuss with peers the social and political issues raised by the literature they’re grappling with together, and replacing them not only with hours spent on the tests themselves, but also hours spent on preparations for those tests.  This deprives students of crucial educational experiences, and makes it more and more difficult to teach them well.


PARCC does this by seeking to narrowly redefine educational success for all classrooms and all districts as success on this one test.  Teachers who wish to inspire, to connect, to move their students forward in terms of their relationships with their communities and their understanding of their place in the universe are looked on with suspicion while those who can develop flashy ways to drill students into mastery of relatively simple skills are lionized.  What does not immediately and obviously improve test scores is scrutinized, while any classroom activity that serves those scores is glorified.  We have to ask– who is served by this?  Are students served by this, or are the test-makers?  Jersey Jazzman, a favorite blogger of mine, has a pretty thorough answer here.


So, if students’ mastery of PARCC-imposed skills is not a true measure of a successful school, or a successful education, what is?  Schools that are truly democratic in nature help students imagine a better future not only for themselves but for their larger community, and the education they offer favors critical engagement and inspiration.  A powerful democratic education involves experiences of discovery in collaboration with classmates, a celebration of creativity and insight achieved through the mastery of coherent subjects explored and examined with autonomous, trusted and energized mentor teachers.  Contrast this vision with the world imagined by PARCC, which favors the mastery of discrete skills through constant individualized monitoring and submission to a testing regime it is uncivil to question, where success has only one measure– what is your number?


Which is the sort of education you want for your child?  Which do you think a curriculum driven by testing will achieve?

Delran EA Knocks it Out of the PARCC!

The Delran Education Association has published a phenomenal statement about their opposition to standardized testing and the damages that are being wrought upon the New Jersey public schools. From an analysis of why they oppose high stakes testing, to a history of the testing movement, to the negative effects this has on students and teachers, their annotated statement covers all the bases eloquently and forcefully.

Read the full statement here:

(November 11, 2014)

We applaud these brave teachers for making so bold and so necessary a public statement!


NJ Teachers Dream of Finland

At the NJEA convention this past Thursday, Pasi Sahlberg, an education policy advisor from Finland, delivered a keynote address that left the room full of New Jersey teachers both envious and hopeful. Finland has garnered international attention for its public education system for consistently scoring the highest on the international PISA tests – but high test scores are not the cause of envy. Instead, he spoke of the respect for children and educators that lies at the heart of their public school system, the focus on cooperation and the rejection of education as competition, and the true meaning of equity. He left the attendees feeling hopeful because he demonstrated what a society can do when it is determined to educate all children to the best of their abilities in the hopes that they will create good lives. For two good explanations of his speech, see the links below.

From teacherbiz:

From The Press of Atlantic City: