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8-2-12 Education and Related Issues in the News Today

NJSpotlight - Five Lessons from Pilot Changing the Way Teachers, Principals are Graded…As districts test new evaluation system, first year shows where modifications are needed.

By John Mooney, August 2, 2012 in Education|Post a Comment

A year into the New Jersey’s pilot program for developing a new teacher and principal evaluation system, Christie administration officials yesterday gave an update of the program and the prospects for the year ahead.

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The aim is to have a new evaluation system in place for every district across the state in 2013-14. But state officials conceded there were many lessons learned from the first year of the pilot, involving 11 districts, and some big issues ahead for the next year in which as many as 20 more districts will test out the system.

In a presentation to the state Board of Education yesterday, Peter Shulman, assistant education commissioner, spoke of those lessons of the past and the changes for the future, each in sets of five. In addition, Shulman presented the first version of new administrative regulations that would ultimately codify the new system.

Five lessons from the pilot so far:

1) “This is something you have to do with people, and not to people.”

That has been a frequent mantra for Shulman, as he and the state department have stressed that this would be a bottom-up process, allowing districts to learn and develop as they go within the administration’s broad parameters.

2) The training is critical

Central to the success of the programs so far has been the availability and effectiveness in training both teachers and their supervisors to what is involved in the new evaluation system. “How am I going to be observed, how am I going to be assessed, and what is the principal looking for,” Shulman said of the required training.

3) Selection of evaluation instruments is key

The state proposed a half-dozen evaluation programs developed by academicians or commercial enterprises for districts to use, and each have their own track records. The state is now seeking formal proposals from these vendors, as well as individual districts, for evaluation models that will be on an approved list. “They are all different, and we believe the selection of the instrument that is best for your district should be done with all the stakeholders at the table,” he said.

4) Challenge in the capacity of principals

“Administrators are struggling in how do they revamp their calendar where this is top priority?” Shulman said in describing the time management challenge for principals. “They still need to worry about cafeteria duty, the angry parents, the flat tire on the bus. We need to know how to prioritize this work and if I have three observations to do, how do I get them done.”

5) Non-tested grades and subjects

A central and controversial piece of the new model is the use of student achievement in evaluating teachers, up to half of the eventual rating in some areas. But what about grades and subjects where there are no state assessments, such as the arts or physical education? Schools and districts have been developing their own student assessments, but this continues to be one of the toughest pieces of the puzzle, he said.

Moving into the next year of the pilot, in which 20 more districts will be testing the model, there will be some key changes. Shulman outlined them as follows:

1) Added visits and observations

Under the second year of the pilot, supervisors will be required to observe so-called “core” teachers in the classroom up to five times during the year, up from the three now in the statute.

2) External observers

Included in the observations will be evaluators from outside the school, preferably within the district itself but potentially from outside districts or organizations as well. “Having a second set of eyes brings a different lens to it and avoids the inherent bias that a principal might have,” Shulman said.

3) Double scoring

Each teacher will have more than one evaluator to the same lesson, to give a broader perspective and vantage on the teacher’s effectiveness.

4) Surprise visits

The standard practice in most districts is teachers are observed in scheduled visits, and the process includes a conference prior to the visit and one after. Under the new pilot, unannounced observations will also be included, giving the evaluator the opportunity to watch a teacher when he or she didn’t necessarily have the chance to fully prepare.

5) Flexibility in student weights

Again, with the student achievement piece still a work in progress, the second cycle of pilot districts are given more flexibility in how much those measures will go into a teachers evaluation. For untested grades and subjects, that piece could be as little as 15 percent of the eventual rating.



NJ Spotlight - Could State-Run ‘Achievement School District’ Be Last Resort for Failing Schools?...Grant application to Broad Foundation sheds light on Cerf’s idea for lowest-performing schools

By John Mooney, August 2, 2012 in Education


The Christie administration is weighing the idea of creating a separate state-run “achievement school district” that would be comprised of New Jersey’s very lowest-performing schools, complete with vast new powers in controlling personnel and programs.

The proposal was part of a $7.6 million grant application to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation made last February, a proposal that never moved to full fruition after the foundation approved a smaller amount, officials now say.

But it will nonetheless be at least part of a broader study of last-resort options for schools that is being conducted by an outside national organization, officials said.

Released as part of a public records request, they are the first formal outlines of an idea that Gov. Chris Christie’s education commissioner, Chris Cerf, has long flirted with and continues to contend should be an option to consider for persistently laggard schools.

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In the grant application, the new “district” would call for the possible unilateral closing of the worst performing schools and reopening them under new outside management, including the suspension of collective bargaining agreements. It is similar to the “recovery districts” that have been employed in post-Katrina Louisiana, as well as Tennessee and Detroit.

“We essentially said this is worth serious deliberation,” Cerf said this week of the application. “What do you do when you have thrown everything at a school, and it still doesn’t work?”

Still, Cerf readily acknowledged it would need new law and regulations that have yet to be proposed. In the meantime, the department is embarking on its own aggressive strategies for revamping schools within their districts, as they now exist.

“To do that would require an act of the Legislature, and we are explicitly clear about that in the application,” he said.

The proposals came to light on Tuesday through the Education Law Center of Newark, the advocacy group that has been at frequent odds with the Christie administration over its education reform agenda.

The center obtained the documents through an open public records request and included it in a press release that painted the approach as part of what it called Christie’s plan to decimate public schools.

“This is a terrible idea,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the center. “To borrow this idea from New Orleans, that is hardly evidence this can work and in fact is evidence to the contrary.”

Sciarra in an interview yesterday also repeated what has been a mounting question among some in the state to the influence of the Broad Foundation in education policy. Cerf is a graduate of Broad’s Leadership training program, as is two of his top assistants, and with this grant, Broad has agreed in the past two years to give more than $2 million in grants to help train staff and develop policy in the state.

“The commissioner is making commitments to a foundation in California that he will follow through on reforms virtually in secret and with no public vetting of these proposals as they relate to the needs of children in New Jersey,” Sciarra said.

Cerf and other state officials argued that there was never any secrecy in their intentions, pointing to a separate memo sent to districts last week that outlined the eventual $1.5 million grant agreement struck with Broad Foundation and the Council for Chief State School Officers, the national organization of state education commissioners.

Cerf has openly supported the notion of a recovery district in the past as well, including having visited New Orleans two years ago to talk with officials there. Broad also funded that trip. He also included the possible closing of schools in a recent federal waiver.

Still, the nine-page Broad proposal provides far more detail than previously discussed publicly.

Importantly, it only proposes the notion of a state-run “district” for schools where other, ongoing reform efforts have failed. The state is scheduled to embark this fall on a network of seven Regional Achievement Centers across the state that would focus on the lowest rung of performers, known as Priority Schools, providing on-site assistance and training. A fair amount of the Broad application details that strategy.

But where it goes into new territory is what the department called “advanced interventions.”

“In the rare instances where local schools, districts, or boards of education are either unwilling or incapable of pursuing improvement strategies in a collaborative fashion, or where sufficient improvement is not made, NJDOE will exercise its authority to ensure that every child has access to a quality education,” the application read.

It does point out significant hurdles from the outset, including the need to further research how the state would go about creating a new district and what authority the state would hold in closing schools and reopening them.

But once determined, the department said it would “support legislation establishing an Achievement School District,” where all Priority Schools would be automatically eligible and the commissioner would make the final decision, not open to appeal.

The schools under state operation would receive the same funding as district schools, it said, and “all schools would be freed from the district’s collective bargaining agreement, and the school’s operator will have control over personnel decisions.”

Cerf this week didn’t distance himself from any of the proposal, but likened it to a wish list for the administration and just one eventual option. Instead, the department is moving ahead with a toned-down version in which the Council for Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) will start by providing recruitment and training for the new RACs.

Still, close to $1 million of the total to CCSSO will include further research into the “advanced intervention strategies,” including those laid out by the state.

According to the grant agreement, CSSO will “provide in-depth research, as well as strategic recommendations and operational plan proposals for the Department’s consideration in the creation of advanced intervention strategies for low performing schools that do not make sufficient progress after receiving Regional Achievement Center support.”

Politickernj - Judges Salaries on the Fastback to November Ballot

By Donald Scarinci | August 1st, 2012 - 11:13am

Amending the state constitution is not something that happens every day in Trenton, nor should it. More often than not, it is unclear how changing one thing that some might consider broken can dramatically alter something seemingly unrelated that is not broken. The current topic for a constitutional amendment is the application of the New Jersey pension reform law on the Judiciary.

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently held that New Jersey’s pension reform law is unconstitutional as applied to the state’s judiciary. But, of course, that is only the latest chapter in this epic battle over judicial salaries in New Jersey. Efforts to amend the New Jersey constitution are now moving at a feverish pace to meet the deadlines for the November ballot.

In DePascale v. New Jersey, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that the pension reform law would seriously undermine judicial independence. “We can no more uphold a law that violates the Judicial Article of the Constitution than one that violates the right to free speech or freedom of the press or the right to due process and equal protection. A Court that cannot protect its own independence is not one that can be counted on to protect the fundamental rights of others in challenging times,” the majority wrote.

As the court further noted, “Whatever good motivation the Legislature may have had when enacting Chapter 78 with its broad application to all state public employees, the Framers’ message is clear. The Constitution forbids the reduction of a justice or judge’s take-home salary during the term of his or her appointment.”

In response to the decision, lawmakers are pushing ahead with a legislative solution in both the Senate and the Assembly. The proposed constitutional amendment would amend the New Jersey Constitution to still prohibit the Legislature from diminishing the salaries of sitting justices and judges, but also allow for “deductions from such salaries for contributions, established by law from time to time, for pensions ... health benefits, and other, similar benefits."

So how does it all work? In order to pass a constitutional amendment, lawmakers must first hold a public hearing on the issue. The Senate Labor Committee held a brief hearing on the proposed amendment last week.

Following a public hearing, the New Jersey Legislature can vote on the constitutional amendment. If the proposed amendment is approved by three-fifths of all the members of each of the respective houses, the amendment will be submitted to the people. If the bill is approved by less then three-fifths but nevertheless by a majority of all the members of each of the respective houses, the proposed amendment is referred to the Legislature in the next legislative year. If the bill again passes by a majority, it can be submitted to the people.

All proposed constitutional amendments must also be published at least once in one or more newspapers of each county at least three months prior to a public vote. This is why lawmakers scrambled to hold a vote on the proposed amendment as soon as possible. Election day is scheduled for November 6, so we are already closing in on the three-month window.

Finally, New Jersey voters must approve the constitutional amendment. If the proposed amendment is approved by a majority of those voting, it will become part of the New Jersey Constitution. However, if it is not approved, lawmakers may be out of luck, at least for a while. The amendment (or one like it) cannot again be placed on the ballot before the third subsequent general election.

For more background on the debate over New Jersey judicial salaries, please see Should Judicial Pay Be Left to New Jersey Voters?

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J. based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck. He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs.



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