Wednesday, July 16, 2014

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie Blinks on Teacher Evaluation

Champion of corporate education reform, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has blinked on one of the signature tenets of that reform movement: AchieveNJ – which provides for teacher evaluation tied to student performance on standardized tests. Faced with an assembly bill that sought to delay the use of the new tests to measure schools and teachers until a task force could be established to review and report on the impact of the tests, Christie capitulated. He had threatened to veto any such bill, but faced with a 72-4 bi-partisan vote in the assembly, Christie had little choice but to compromise.

His executive order does nothing to relieve parents and children from taking the suspect tests, but it does delay the implementation of the value-added measurement of teacher performance. The executive order means that the 20 per cent of New Jersey teachers who teach language arts and math in grades 3-8 will have student performance on those tests count for 10 per cent of their evaluation in 2014-15 and 20 per cent the following year. While the executive order really just kicks the can down the road for two years, it must be seen as a clear victory for the two teacher unions, NJEA and AFT, if not for parents and students.

It is interesting to note that test scores were originally intended to account for 35 per cent of a teacher’s evaluation. Out-going New Jersey Commissioner of Education, Chris Cerf, lowered that to 30 per cent earlier this year. Now Christie has lowered it to 10 percent and 20 per cent for the next two years. As Jersey Jazzman has pointed out in a comment on Bob Brauns’ blog, “It is an indication of how arbitrary the process of tying test scores to teacher evaluations is when the governor — on the basis of absolutely nothing — can change the weight of test scores in those evaluations merely by executive order.”

So now we wait for the findings of this new task force. Chritie's task forces have a tendency to report what Christie wants to hear, so I am not very optimistic about what we will hear from this new panel.

Several years ago, another of the Governor's executive orders initiated the Task Force on Educator Evaluation, a group that ultimately recommended the 35 per cent number for the amount that student standardized tests should count in a teacher evaluation. That recommendation flew directly in the face of testimony provided that task force by a group of New Jersey educators and researchers calling themeselves EQuATE.  The EQuATE report called on the task force to recommend the following to the Governor.

Based on a thorough analysis of existing literature, evaluation programs, and its members’ own experiences, EQuATE is recommending the following:

1. Appoint a ―guiding coalition to develop an aligned ―Department of Education – Local Education Authority‖ (DOE-LEA) system for continuous improvement of teaching and school leadership through an inclusive process by December 2011.
2. Develop a balanced teacher evaluation framework and process. The DOE-LEA evaluation system should:

  • Empower teachers and school leaders to customize, adopt and implement a process and framework that is LEA-specific;
  •  Reduce the weight given to standardized test-based measures of student achievement; 
  • Select pupil progress indicators with wisdom; Incorporate all domains of professional practice into the evaluation framework; 
  • Develop guidelines, standards, processes and training around the proper use of data; 
  • Design for transformative change rather than simply technical change;
  • Conduct a cost-benefit analysis.

3. Complete a pilot of the DOE-LEA process and framework by July 2015.
4. Provide LEAs with a set of criteria by which they might opt-out of the proposed statewide system based on performance and locally developed educator improvement systems. One alternative should be a locally negotiated Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) process designed to identify and assist under-performing teachers before making a professional judgment regarding their fitness for continued service.

EQuATE further warned of the dangers of attributing more to test scores than they could reveal about teacher effectiveness.

Research studies show that the teacher’s effect on value-added scores, based on these kinds of tests, accounts for only 3-4 percent of the variation.1 Fully 90 percent of the variation in VAMs is attributable to student characteristics and the interaction of learning/test-taking styles with the instruments used to measure achievement; it’s not the teacher. To ascribe a weight to this measure that exceeds its explanatory power would be malpractice at best.

If the Task Force on Educator Evaluation had aligned their recommendations with this reasoned and well-researched approach, yesterday's Christie capitulation would not have been necessary and real progress on teacher evaluation could have been made. Instead the task force report and the policy which followed it were driven by ideology rather than sound practice. 

Christie paid a bit of a price for that yesterday. It will be interesting to see if this new task force listens to educators, sound research and good sense and makes non-ideological recommendations. I, for one, am not holding my breath.

For a full explanation of why AchieveNJ is "faith-based policy" please see Jersey Jazzman here.