|9-26 and 27-11 Spotlight on NJ Recent Education Issues|
One change to New Jersey's charter school law passed the legislature yesterday, while talk mounts that a broader rewrite of the state's 15-year-old statute governing the semi-autonomous schools may be in the offing.
The state Senate passed a bill that would allow certain parochial and private schools to convert to charters. Few think that the proposal will lead to many such conversions, but may send a lifeline to at least a few closing Catholic schools.
The measure, which passed 25-13, is the only one of a half-dozen proposed reforms to New Jersey's charter school law that has now passed both the Senate and the Assembly. It goes next to Gov. Chris Christie for his expected signature.
But while other charter proposals have languished, leading Democratic legislators said there is momentum gaining for a more comprehensive overhaul of the 1996 charter law that could loosen some restrictions and add others.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chairwoman of the Senate education committee, said in an interview that she still hopes to get some specific changes through by the end of the calendar year, including a bill to extend the number of organizations that can approve new charters.
But Ruiz said she also plans a public hearing of experts and educators before her committee in the next month to start what she called a "hard look" at the overall law.
"It will be for discussion purposes, so we can engage in a conversation," she said. "We need to look at what has been working in the law, and what hasn't been working."
"It is time to revisit the law in its entirety," Ruiz said.
What will be included in those revisions, of course, is still to be determined. Some pending proposals would increase the state's capacity for approving and overseeing charters, while others would make it more difficult for new charters to open and put greater restrictions on existing ones.
Christie has proposed his own charter revisions that would add significantly more flexibility to charter schools, while his education commissioner, Chris Cerf, has lately been touting greater accountability for enrollment and performance.
One of the primary sponsors of several of the proposals in the Assembly said the broader rewrite of the law, in whatever form, is likely to take some time. State Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), whose list of bills includes the charter conversion proposal passed yesterday, said he has been involved in some of the early discussions about enacting a new law entirely.
"It is something that is being looked at as we speak, and we are waiting for some more feedback," he said. "But a whole new charter law may be something that we want to save for the new legislative session."
In the meantime, he pressed for another of his bills that would set stiffer requirements for existing charters and the lotteries they use to select students.
"We need to do something," he said. "The status quo is unacceptable."
The Conversion Measure
For now, passage of the charter conversion bill is the latest development in the escalating debate as to the merits of the alternative schools and how to best oversee them.
The bill would allow private schools that show certain levels of student performance to have a chance to become public charters. The conversions would be reserved to districts where the existing public schools have low achievement levels.
While the measure is aimed at Catholic schools that otherwise would be forced to close due to dropping enrollments, the New Jersey Catholic Conference and other church leaders have not endorsed the bill. They said few of their schools would make such conversions, since it would dilute the value of a Catholic education.
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), the Senate sponsor of the bill, said he was disappointed in the dearth of support from the church, but added that he did expect the proposal to help some Catholic schools to at least save their teachers and their students. He said he has heard support from church leaders in Camden.
"Even if it only happens in Camden, that is a good thing to keep those faculty intact and the student body in place," Lesniak said.
The Senate's passage drew support from the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, which sought to put it in context of a broader change in the law as well. The association has pressed for a more comprehensive review of the charter law.
"This bill is a good first step toward amending the current charter school law to support the expansion of high-quality charter schools," said Donna Siminski, the association's director of policy and advocacy.
"However, we feel it should be included as part of comprehensive reform legislation," she said in a statement. "We believe more can be done to ensure greater accountability and autonomy in schools while addressing the funding inequities which currently exist."
A coalition of other school choice advocates said more fundamental reforms are needed through a pending school voucher proposal, the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), and that Christie should think twice about signing the conversion bill. Christie is a strong voucher proponent who has openly campaigned for OSA.
"I would request that Governor Christie pause his pen and reach out to major stakeholders to pragmatically assess whether this is dressing a wound or dressing a window," said Norm Alworth, president of Excellent Education for Everyone.
Charlotte Danielson may not be a recognizable name to the general public, but the Princeton-based consultant is the architect of a framework for observing and evaluating teachers that has been the gold standard in schools across the country.
By one count, a third of New Jersey school districts use the Danielson method in their own evaluation systems, focusing on its criteria for effective teaching. Danielson divides those criteria into 22 components across four domains: preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibility.
As the Christie administration now moves to create a statewide teacher evaluation system, the Danielson framework is one of the programs being offered to 10 pilot districts. Of course, Gov. Chris Christie is also putting a heavy emphasis on student achievement measures such as state test scores for the rest of the rating, a component not in Danielson's system.
Last week, Danielson spoke with NJ Spotlight about the latest push for better evaluation nationwide -- both strengths and pitfalls, including some worries about how New Jersey is pursuing its reforms.
Starts With the Evaluators
Danielson is helping develop an online course for training and testing evaluators, a system that she hopes would be part of any statewide system. Illinois, New York and Idaho have either proposed or passed laws that make such training and proficiency a requirement. New Jersey's pilot has no such defined standards.
Most teachers would say that principals don't know what they're doing, and they're mostly right. Whatever the instrument, you have to have evaluators who know what they are doing and can demonstrate that. I think it is an essential component of a valid system.
There are predictable challenges to do with this. I have talked to a number of superintendents and their problem is that their people won't pass and then what do they do.
One thing to say we need to strengthen the evaluation and do it now. But my advice is against making consequential decisions until that [evaluator] piece is in place. Of course, they haven't asked me.
A 'Gotcha' Checklist?
The frequent criticism of any system is that it becomes a checklist solely for evaluation and as a punitive “gotcha” to catch poor teaching, as opposed to a learning experience for the teacher. Danielson stressed that her framework is meant first and foremost for teachers and administrators to reflect on the practice in the classroom and ways to improve it.
The evaluation should be the last step in the process. I do the best I can to discourage it becoming just a checklist.
Why I don't get too worried is that when it is used correctly and used for professional conversations, it really does become eye-opening. The net result is positive.
The gotcha is always a fear, but I think I'd hear more if it were happening a lot.
The most controversial part of the Christie administration's plan is that it would use student test scores or other achievement measures for up to half of a teacher's evaluation. Danielson has some problems with that.
I don't think there is a single teacher who says that student achievement is irrelevant in their performance. Any teacher should be able to demonstrate that the children are learning.
The question is the evidence and how to attribute that to any one teacher. And I can say with confidence that nobody yet has figured out how to do that.
It's a serious issue, and there are enormous stakes in us getting it right.
Not on the List She has worked with a task force in Illinois that is developing some standardized measures, including national and local assessments. State tests like those New Jersey would use are not on the list.
They're just too unstable, one family moves into town and changes it all. And you can't even approach reliability without three years of data.
Overall, the higher the stakes, the worse the consequences. There is a lot of use to be made of the [state] data, just not for teacher accountability.
Good Teachers Equal Good Test Scores?
Still, Danielson was asked if teachers who perform well under her criteria also see tangible gains in student achievement.
We do have evidence that the answer is yes, and it does validate my work. High levels of teacher performance do correlate with student learning gains. But this is all very new work, and we have to bear that in mind. And policy-makers need to bear it in mind.
Garden State Coalition of Schools