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Citing pandemic, Murphy alters teacher evaluations

Change, which governor says is necessitated by extraordinary school year, was backed by NJEA
Credit: NJTV News
File photo

A decade ago, New Jersey made national news when then-Gov. Chris Christie signed a law adding more student-centered data to how teachers were evaluated each year. One measure was tied to state test scores, the other to academic performance in the classroom.

But in doing so, the state and its public schools entered into what was always the trickiest — and most controversial — part of the teacher quality equation, and over the years, those weights have been slowly whittled from the calculations.

On Monday, the state marked a new chapter when Gov. Phil Murphy released an executive order that, among other actions, all but eliminates any such measures from teacher evaluations for at least the 2020-2021 school year.

The move was ostensibly to ease the burden on districts during the extraordinary year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when more classes are being taught online than in person. But it’s also reviving the discussion on whether some of the requirements were effective in the first place.

‘Student growth objectives’

Specifically, Murphy’s order stipulates that schools would be released of the requirement that they use “student growth objectives,” or SGOs, as part of teacher evaluations. His administration had already waived the use of standardized tests in teacher ratings for the year, given the state hasn’t given the tests in 2020 and may not in 2021.

“We cannot adequately evaluate educator performance based on Student Growth Objectives when remote learning has thrown so much uncertainty into the mix,” Murphy said. “We know our educators have all gone above and beyond this year — whether in an in-person or hybrid classroom, or entirely online.”

Under the SGO requirements in the law known as Achieve NJ, 15% of a teacher’s rating takes into account whether they met one or two agreed-upon objectives, using classroom assessment or other data point. It varies by the teacher and supervisor and could be a different test for reading or math, for instance, or maybe involve showing progress in a certain subgroup of students.

By the executive order, Murphy has all but removed SGOs from the equation for the year, and a teacher’s evaluation now will be based entirely on the judgment of his or her supervisor through observations and other subjective measures of the classroom work.

“Instead, this year we are asking school leaders and departmental supervisors to evaluate educators solely based on teacher practice,” Murphy said. “While Student Growth Objectives should remain a tool for assessing other aspects of professional development and assessing student progress, they should not impact our educators’ annual evaluations given this unprecedented year.

Now what?

What comes next is the question. The state Department of Education will have to issue guidance to districts on what exactly Murphy’s order means in terms of day-to-day practice and continuing the SGO process, even if they are not a formal part of teacher evaluations.

For instance, the order is unclear whether teachers and supervisors will still need to follow the specific timelines on agreeing to the objectives and monitoring progress. SGOs are agreed upon by the end of October, with further revisions in February, and data collection continues through the end of the school year.

The chief legislative sponsor of the bill back in 2011 said she awaits the administration’s guidance. “It doesn’t make sense to collect the information, and nobody is using it,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate education committee.

Teacher and administrator groups were also waiting for the details. After initial buy-in to the concept of SGOs a decade ago, the state’s teachers union, especially, have soured on the SGO process and raised concerns about how effective the requirement has proven, on one hand saying goal-setting is already a big part of the educator’s job but it shouldn’t be tied to data-collection requirements in how a teacher is judged.

“The problem from the very beginning is they created this onerous paperwork process that was an absolute burden on our members,” said Michael Cohan, professional development director of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s dominant teachers union.

“It became a compliance process,” he said. “What it became was a paper chase.”

The NJEA has become a close political ally of Murphy’s, and he specifically thanked their input in announcing his executive order on Monday. But it’s not just the unions raising concerns.

Patricia Wright, the executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, agreed the conversations between teachers and supervisors were already taking place and making it part of a teacher’s evaluation wasn’t helpful.

“In a lot of schools, these conversations were going on no matter what,” she said. “If you go back to the foundational practices of teaching, it’s all about setting goals and monitoring for progress.

“But if we thought tying it to evaluations would make us do it better,” she said, “I don’t know … I don’t think it has swayed a lot of evaluations to different results.”