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.