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9-10-12 Education Issues in the News

Asbury Park Press, The Record  - N.J. schools step up teacher evaluations

5:42 AM, Sep 10, 2012 |

Associated Press, Geoff Mulvihill

Now that it really counts, school districts across New Jersey have to figure out how they are going to evaluate their teachers — and fast.

It’s a complicated question. And under a state law signed last month to make tenure harder to get and easier to lose for educators, districts need to find answers by the 2013-14 school year. The most vexing issue is expected to be determining exactly how standardized test results should fit into the picture.

District officials and teachers unions alike wonder whether that gives most schools enough time to make such big changes.

Matthew Jennings, the schools superintendent in Hunterdon County’s relatively high-performing Alexandria Township district, says it had a big head start because it started developing its own tests three years ago. The assessments are given three times a year to every student in every subject area in the kindergarten-eighth grade district and can become key in measuring how much students are learning — a big part of teachers’ grades under the new tenure law.

He said those tests have taken years to develop. And if the district had not already done them, this year would be much more stressful. “I certainly would be tempted to look at some of the shortcuts that exist in order to be compliant,” Jennings said.

About one-third New Jersey’s nearly 600 districts have some similar position in place or in development already, a New Jersey Education Association researcher said. The rest are expected to have even more of a scramble this school year.

“It’s an aggressive agenda if you don’t have anything in place now,” said Brian Zychowski, the schools superintendent in North Brunswick and the chairman of a state task force on teacher evaluations. His district has been using its own tests for more than a half-dozen years. Schools without such systems, he said, will end up buying commercially available ones to meet deadlines. “They’ll be receiving — not being part of the conversation, not trying to shape it.”

Robert Goldschmidt, superintendent of schools in Gloucester County’s Washington Township, said that it makes sense to follow a model that has already been approved by the state. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

How to measure teachers’ performance is a technical issue that’s become the center of public debate as education policy across the country has increasingly been focused on how much students learn rather than how they are taught.

In short, the evaluations are about to mean more.

Under the law supported by all of New Jersey’s major education interest groups and signed last month by Gov. Chris Christie, teachers will have to attain certain marks to get tenure. A string of bad evaluations and they would be fired. Christie would also like to use evaluations eventually to determine which teachers get extra pay and which lose their jobs in case of layoffs. But traditional ways of evaluating teachers are not sophisticated enough to use for any of those purposes.

Currently, most districts in New Jersey use essentially a pass-fail system based mostly on a limited number of classroom observations by principals. Nearly every teacher passes.

The new law calls for using more rigorous and frequent observations and measures of student performance. The latter can include progress on statewide standardized tests, results from the districts’ own tests — like Alexandria is using — and portfolios of pupils’ work, among other things. Teachers would receive a grade.

In the pilot program, state tests must account for 35 percent of a teacher’s total mark in subjects where they are given.


NJ Spotlight - NJ Lawmakers Begin Study of Online Education in Charter Schools…Hearings set to define virtual schools as they evolve and fuel debate in Garden State

By John Mooney, September 10, 2012 in Education|Post a Comment

Online education in charter schools -- in all its different and controversial forms -- will get the first of what could be several Statehouse hearings this week, as legislators start to sort out what is growing to be one of the state’s more contentious issues.

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The Joint Committee on the Public Schools will host the hearing on Wednesday morning, at 11 a.m., with presentations by three national proponents of online education.

The three are Susan Patrick of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning; Michael Horn of the Education of Innosight Institute; and Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education reform.

The new co-chairman of the joint committee, state Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen), said she wants the first hearing to be devoted to defining the issue, one that has become easily confused with a host of different terms for the different kinds of programs.

She said subsequent hearings would go into the pros and cons of the programs, and then what if any further laws and regulations the legislature should put in place.

A former public high school guidance counselor, Wagner did not hide that she is skeptical herself from the research she has done, but she is coming into the hearings seeking to hear from all sides.

“There are so many different forms of this that we need to set out,” Wagner said yesterday. “Once we have done that, then we can see where government can come into play.”

“This may be the wave of the future, but before we embrace it, we better know what we are talking about,” she said at another point. “There are many, many questions and concerns.”

Relatively new to the field in comparison to other states, New Jersey is getting a crash course in online schooling this year, as the Christie administration approved four charter schools that provide the instruction in different forms.

Two so-called “blended” or “hybrid” charter school programs are underway this fall in Newark where students come to school everyday and take classes from certified teachers, but see as much as half of their instruction online.

The administration has also approved two so-called “virtual” charter schools that are entirely online, with students taking all their classes from home. Their openings have been postponed for a year.

But the topic has been a hot one with the administration’s approvals, with critics contending they are unproven if not harmful to children’s educations. There are few regulations in place for monitoring them as well, with questions to how they would be funded and overseen, they say.

Proponents, including administration officials, contend they provide an alternative for students who do not succeed in more traditional education settings.

Nonetheless, the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, has filed a legal challenge against the state’s allowing any of the programs, contending it has no authority under the state’s existing charter law. The law was enacted in 1995, before there was much of an online education field at all.

Wagner said yesterday that her own initial research and conversations with educators and families has found a host of concerns in the approach. She said she traveled this summer in several states where online schooling is more prominent, and even families who had taken part raised concerns.

“I wanted to hear the good and the bad, and usually heard from them that many of the children didn’t follow through and stay in the courses,” she said. “But if a student drops out, what happens to the money in that case?”

Moving ahead with the programs without knowing all these answers is troubling, Wagner said, and she hopes the hearings will at least speed the process in putting in place better oversight.

“I want to slow this up,” Wagner said. “Before we go full throttle, we need to at least ask these questions.”


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608