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3-12-12 Education Issues in the News
NJ Spotlight - Early Feedback About New Teacher Evaluation System Generally Positive…But educators express concerns about how much time observations will add to already busy schedules

Star Ledger - Superintendent Cami Anderson needs support to make change in Newark schools

Asbury Park Press - High court balance tipping toward Christie

NJ Spotlight - SDA to Announce Nearly 80 Urgent Projects It Is Moving Ahead On…Schools Development Authority faces criticism and possible lawsuit over delays

NJ Spotlight - Early Feedback About New Teacher Evaluation System Generally Positive…But educators express concerns about how much time observations will add to already busy schedules

By John Mooney, March 12, 2012 in Education

It's still very early days for New Jersey's controversial teacher evaluation system -- now in limited pilot projects across the state -- but reports from the front lines are starting to filter in.

Most of the feedback from teachers and administrators has been positive. Both relish the renewed focus on what's happening in the classroom and their renewed dialogue, at least that's the upshot of the latest NJ Spotlight Roundtable, held this past weekend.

Carol Boehm, a music teacher for 10 years in Red Bank Borough, said the pilot's focus so far on classroom observations had spurred valuable conversations about the craft of teaching.

"Anyone who hears the word change, anyone is going to be a little scared and apprehensive," she said. "But once we started going through the process and the training, we really understood the value of it.

"We have come around and understood how important it is and how much more important is the open dialogue we have been able to have," Boehm added.

But at least one administrator, who values the opportunities offered by the new program, spoke openly about the heavy demand it puts on his time.

Brian Gismondi, principal of West Deptford High School, said he now directly evaluates 22 teachers, with each evaluation and its pre- and post-conferences taking considerably more attention.

"It is busy, I'm not going to lie to you. My day has changed and my day as an instructional leader has changed," he said.

"You have to run your building, manage your building, the paperwork, the parent phone calls," he said.

"It's not just evaluation. Most of my day now I spend in classrooms with teachers, talking with them. Not that it isn't worthwhile, but you need to change what you are doing and how you do it. I have pushed myself to a different limit than I ever had to," he added.

And one teacher, Tanya Tenturier of Elizabeth's Terence C. Reilly School, who also gave many aspects of the pilot high marks, said the state tests at the end of the year leave her uneasy.

"Honestly I am not sure the point of it all." she said. "My students are demonstrating on a daily basis that they are capable and what their strengths and weaknesses are, I'm not about the big culmination at the end of the year."

NJ Spotlight's Roundtable on the state's new teacher evaluation system brought together teachers and administrators from three of the pilot districts, as well as Robert Fisicaro the manager of the pilot for the state Department of Education, and Peter Shulman, the state assistant commissioner of education whose office is spearheading the pilot and the policy that will come out of it.

The Saturday morning event took place before an audience of more than 100 educators, advocates, and others at the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association in Monroe.

Red Bank's Boehm was not the only one to stress the value of observation (essentially, the first phase of the new evaluation program).

Laura Morana, the superintendent in Red Bank, conducted Boehm's first observation and said she, too, gained a great deal.

"We have had to do a great deal of learning in a short period of time, at all levels, including myself," she said.

"It's really allowing the teacher and the evaluator to have a meaningful discussion about teaching and learning, and the next steps."

Gismondi who discussed the additional hours the new observations were adding to his day also said the pilot has led to a whole change in the professional climate in his building.

"We're going through a culture change for the first time in my history there," he said of his dozen years as an administrator. "We are having conversations that are in depth to education and to resources and to what is happening in the classroom.

"Not just once in a while and during evaluation but it's happening all the time," he said. "That's the culture change. Administration conversations have changed, teacher conversations have changed."

Tenturier, a second year math teacher, also said the meetings with administrators to discuss lessons ahead of time are extremely valuable.

"I can show how I will differentiate instruction, I can communicate so much more through the current pilot," she said. "I feel in that way teachers are able to advocate for themselves and show more of the reflection."

Still, as the districts continue to hone the observation aspects of the evaluations, challenges have emerged as well, including the capacity of schools both in cost and time to develop reliable systems.

Morana in Red Bank said the cost is about $75,000 for her small district, much of it in training and time, but it's not just financial resources.

"How do we go about completing those evaluations, two for tenured teachers, three for non-tenured, in a way that is a comprehensive manner without rushing through the process?" she said.

Robert Fisicaro, both manager of the pilot and former elementary school principal, said the resources to complete quality training are vital.

Panelists repeatedly said the training was critical in building a sense of trust with supervisors and an assurance everyone is looking at the same things.

"The importance of the training cannot be overstated," Fisicaro said. "Teachers have to have a clear picture of the criteria to which they are evaluated. "

Assistant commissioner Shulman acknowledged that the capacity issues -- such as those Gismondi discussed -- are not just at the local level.

"Capacity is an issue, a significant challenge from Trenton down to the classroom to make this work," he said.

"This has to be woven into the fabric of what you are doing," he said. "It does take time and resources, and when looking at the prioritizing in the schools, this is a difficult thing to do."

The toughest debate came down to using student performance measures in evaluating teachers. While it is months away from being applied in the pilot districts and schools, the teachers on the panel were not averse to it. The state's system will use a complex formula that weighs student progress against their peers.

Boehm as a music teacher does not see her students take a state test and said she has begun with other music teachers in the district to develop their own.

"I'm actually a little excited about this," she said, explaining new assessments in playing the recorder. "This is our opportunity to show that we have standards we want to meet, and be able to show that are students are meeting those standards."

The state test, on the other hand, is already a central presence in Tenturier's job as a math teacher in Elizabeth, for good or ill.

"The first thing I get as a teacher is a breakdown of where they scored the highest and where they scored the lowest," she said. "I pre-assess, I post-assess, I assess the assessments."

Shulman tried to downplay the weight of any single student measure, saying the test scores would be significant but just one component of the overall evaluation. He said the use of student scores for teacher evaluation remained an "emerging field" in both policy and research. But he nonetheless stood by the scores as an important and objective measure that needed to be considered.

"We believe in having a common measuring stick," he said directly to Tenturier. "And for all the great work that you do, we can't be sure every educator is doing that."

Shulman repeatedly stressed that the state was listening to the concerns and had already extended the timeline for the pilot into next year, when up to 30 districts will be included. (The pilots are currently running in 10 districts and 19 additional schools.)

"For some we are moving too fast, and for others not fast enough," he said.


Star Ledger - Superintendent Cami Anderson needs support to make change in Newark schools

Published: Sunday, March 11, 2012, 7:27 AM By Tom Moran/ The Star-Ledger

The Star-Ledger
Cami Anderson, the new superintendent in Newark, is a veteran of the school wars in New York City, so maybe she was prepared for what hit her the other night during a community forum at the Louise A. Spencer School.

She was called a liar. She was called a coward. Her reform plan was condemned as an insult to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And then it got worse.

The low point came when a union leader, Joe DelGrosso, compared the state control of city schools to slavery: “You robbed them of their ancestry once,” shouted DelGrosso, who is white. “Why not again?”

For this patent nonsense, this racial demagoguery, DelGrosso got thundering applause.

But even that’s not the really sad part of this story. This is Newark, after all, and public meetings here often get rowdy, thanks to a small group of activists who would be right at home on “The Jerry Springer Show.”

The really sad part is that most of the elected school committee did not lift a finger in her defense. It was as if Anderson was supposed to move the reform all by herself.

“What concerns me is there’s no chorus of people emerging in her support,” says Mayor Cory Booker. “This is the first time in decades we’ve had a superintendent who is willing to do unpopular things that put children first. I give her an A-plus for courage.”

Anderson is the sort of woman who seems ready to bang her head through a brick wall to get this done. One of 12 children in a mixed-race family, a senior aide to Joel Klein when he revamped New York City’s schools, she is a white woman who lives in Newark with her African-American husband and their young son. This is not someone who is going to be intimidated by the race card.

The reform plan itself is smart and tough. Anderson wants to close seven schools, maybe eight, chosen because students are failing and because some of the buildings are nearly half empty.

That will save a ton of money, because it costs up to $1 million a year to maintain each school. The saved funds will go to the new schools, likely for technology upgrades.

But the more important change concerns personnel. One of Newark’s key problems is its number of ineffective teachers who have tenure. To remove them, Anderson had to get creative. So she has granted principals the right to reject teacher placements in their schools.

For the principals, that is a godsend.

“If I can change my staff, I guarantee that, within a year, we will see student growth,” says Chaletta Barnes, principal of Dayton Street School, one of those slated to close. “It hurts me to know we are a failing school. And I am all about change and making things better.”

There is a catch, an expensive one. Anderson can’t lay off the teachers no one wants. She already has 85 teachers in an “excess teacher pool” that costs the district about $8 million a year, and that number will soon grow.

She has other reforms in mind, such as expanding charter schools, as long as they take their fair share of low performers. But it’s the closings and the new rules on teacher placement that are raising hackles among parents and union leaders.

She seems to be making progress with them, as well. At a meeting of parents and teachers at Dayton Street on Thursday night, there was no shouting and no insults. Teachers asked how they can apply for jobs in the new schools. Parents asked when they would learn their children’s new school assignments.

It’s the hesitation of civil leaders that seems to concern her: “People are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” she says. “And we need more people to jump in the water and say it’s time for bold action.”

Maybe it’s coming. At the raucous meeting at Louise A. Spencer, Bob Curvin, one of the city’s most respected elders, begged the crowd for civility. “The schools in Newark have been very bad off for a very long time,” he said later. “Poor Cami is carrying everyone’s baggage.”

And Shavar Jeffries, the school committee member who set a record for most votes in his election, offered a vigorous defense of Anderson’s “courage” and added that King would “roll in his grave” to hear his name invoked in defense of a failing school.

In the end, Anderson can do what she wants, given the state control. But she wants more of the full-throated support she got from Jeffries at that meeting.

Because she knows that for the reform to work, and to last beyond the next political cycle, she needs to win hearts and minds in this town. And that she cannot do alone.

Asbury Park Press  - High court balance tipping toward Christie

5:56 PM, Mar. 9, 2012 |  Column by JOHN SCHOONEJONGEN

An Appellate Court panel slapped Gov. Chris Christie on the wrist last week, ruling that the governor had put his toe over the constitutional line when he abolished the Council on Affordable Housing last year.

The power to get rid of COAH, a creature of the Legislature, resides with the lawmakers who made it, the three-judge panel unanimously ruled. Christie’s administration was quick to express its disappointment in the ruling, asserting that it would challenge the decision in the Supreme Court.

In years past, this probably would be a losing cause, but the Supreme Court is in the throes of major change, and those changes may bode well for Christie. The governor has nominated two men to the court, both fitting the diversity challenge laid down by Democrats in the Legislature and both, presumably, with the philosophical bona fides sought by the administration.

Phillip H. Kwon and Bruce A. Harris are scheduled for hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in less than two weeks, and it’s a good bet that at least one of them will be confirmed relatively quickly.

Harris’ nomination, in particular, has resonance.

The state’s first openly gay Supreme Court nominee comes along at a time when there is an open debate on whether the state should legalize same-sex marriage. Harris, who is in a long-term committed relationship and whose partner stood beside him during Christie’s introduction of his nominees, has declared he will recuse himself from any court decision on same-sex marriage, but his nomination is “emotionally important,” said one gay rights activist.

Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality last week touted Harris’ credentials, and said, “I’m rooting for the guy.”

So is Christie.

With one pick — Anne Patterson — already seated on the court and two more waiting for confirmation, the governor has a chance to significantly alter the makeup of the seven-member bench. And with major decisions on crucial issues such as school funding coming up, three new justices with viewpoints similar to Christie’s could finally sway the court away from its longstanding endorsement of massive state funding of New Jersey’s poorer school districts.

The COAH appeal, therefore, could take on some added significance. If two new Christie-appointed justices are seated by the time the case is heard, what will the result be? And will the opinions issued give any hint of what might be coming down the road in other decisions of even greater import?

One can never predict how a Supreme Court justice will vote, but Christie and his staff are extremely careful when vetting any appointment. Believers in restricted executive power and an activist court need not apply.

The nominees’ professional and political experiences are important in this area. Kwon currently works in the Attorney General’s Office, a part of the executive branch. Harris, a registered Republican, is himself a political executive — the mayor of Chatham. Kwon also is well-known to Christie, having worked with him during the governor’s days as U.S. attorney.

Of the two, Kwon appears the most vulnerable. New Jersey’s first Asian-American and immigrant Supreme Court nominee already has been the subject of questions over his family’s liquor store business, which were scrutinized by the federal government in a civil case. No one was accused of criminal conduct, and Kwon was not directly involved in the business, but that will not stop the judiciary committee from probing.

Nonetheless, whether it is Kwon and Harris or two other nominees, eventually Christie will get the court he wants, and the resultant decisions could dramatically shift the education debate, as well as other issues, such as COAH.

With education funding, the court would seem to tilt in Christie’s favor if both Kwon and Harris are confirmed. In the last decision, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justice Virginia Long (now retired) recused themselves. Of the remaining justices, one — Helen Hoens, an appointee of Gov. Jon S. Corzine — sided with the administration. If all three of Christie’s nominees take the same position, the balance shifts toward a dramatic rethinking of school funding.

Christie’s plan to remake New Jersey has focused so far on legislative and executive action. With the help of Democrats in the Assembly and Senate, landmark pension reform was passed. Again, Christie is partnering with Democrats to begin a hard push toward tenure reform for teachers. All of this was done over the howls of public employee unions.

Now it’s time to remake the Supreme Court, and Christie is in a unique position to do it, with three openings on the court coming in less than a year. We should know by the end of the month how quickly that transformation will be coming.


NJ Spotlight - SDA to Announce Nearly 80 Urgent Projects It Is Moving Ahead On…Schools Development Authority faces criticism and possible lawsuit over delays

By John Mooney, March 12, 2012 in Education|


Kick-starting a long-delayed program, the Christie administration is expected to announce today it is moving ahead with nearly 80 "emergent" repair projects in more than 20 of the state's neediest school districts.

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Leaders of the Schools Development Authority plan hold a press conference in Harrison this morning to announce that reviews were completed on 300 requested projects across the state, from structural repairs to new boilers to fortifying masonry.

The press conference comes at a time when the SDA is facing rising criticism -- and a possible lawsuit -- over the slow pace of the repair work that many have called urgent for health and safety reasons.

SDA officials said that the state Department of Education determined that 76 projects should be deemed as "emergent" -- needing expedited work due to health and safety concerns.

The bulk of the work will be in Newark, with 31 projects in 24 schools. There are also six projects in Jersey City, six in Camden, five in Irvington and three in Trenton.

The remainder of the 300 projects fall into a variety of less-urgent categories, officials said, including "routine maintenance" and "capital maintenance."

The determinations come as the SDA has been widely criticized for stalling the court-ordered work over the past year. Districts have submitted more than 700 requests since last May.

The SDA is also under fire for its failure to break ground on any major construction projects in the past two years in any of the 31 districts falling under the order of the state Supreme Court in the Abbott v. Burke case. The SDA has announced more than 20 projects would proceed, with three now out to bid.

But the emergent projects have been a particular beef for critics, who maintain some of these situations put students in peril. Last night, David Sciarra of the Education Law Center in Newark, the group that brought the Abbott complaint, said it was preparing a lawsuit over the emergent projects and maintained it was a likely spur to the state's announcement.

"They only seem to move when there's a lawsuit or a threat of a lawsuit," Sciarra said yesterday.

"We will have to see what happens tomorrow, but we are still prepared to file suit," he said. "This action comes because they were aware that that we were preparing to file suit over this entire issue."

He said it didn't help that the SDA's list was titled "potential" projects for "potential advancement."

"They are very good at putting projects on lists and doing nothing," he said.

In a draft of the press release going out today, the Christie administration maintains that the overhaul of the beleaguered SDA was necessary for these projects to proceed. Much of the past six months has been taken up by a tighter review of each requested project, including site visits, they said.

"The emergent program is another example of the reform effort underway at SDA under CEO Marc Larkins," the draft read. "Prior to the Christie Administration, funds available for emergent projects had been nearly exhausted and the process for review was not nearly comprehensive enough to ensure that only the most critical projects across the state were being addressed."

The administration last year allocated $100 million for the emergent work once it resumed, it continued, "to further support this program and … a commitment to change business as usual by requiring a thorough review process."

The head of facilities for Newark Public Schools, Steve Morlino, said this weekend that he welcomed the projects being cleared. The list includes repairs to crumbling masonry at more than a dozen schools that have led to years of sidewalk scaffolding around the schools to protect children and passersby.

"Glad to hear some of these projects are getting underway," Morlino wrote in an email.

Morlino said there are plenty of challenges ahead, including fitting all in over the coming summer when the work must be completed. He hoped a more consistent schedule was coming as well.

"It would be less costly to do these projects on a maintenance schedule, instead of the added cost of doing collateral repairs caused by deferring the work," he wrote. "We could put a lot of people to work as a result."


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