Commentary: Why data-driven teacher evaluations in NJ are here to stay

The New Jersey Department of Education just released the “2013-2014 Final Educator Evaluation Implementation Report,” which lays out the results of New Jersey’s challenging and challenged first year of tying student test scores to teacher and principal evaluations, a practice known as “value-added measures,” or VAM.  

Since the 2012 passage of N.J.’s tenure law called TEACHNJ, teacher union leaders have played the role of Chicken Little, full of fear and trembling at the prospect of tying a small portion of teacher evaluations to student test data, inciting parents and teachers with doomsday threats, warning, as NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan did, that “we need to safeguard against a test-taking tsunami that enriches private corporations’ wallets but impoverishes our students!”  Or, as NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia prophesied, “VAM’s are the mark of the devil!”

Contrary to prognostications of apocalypse, the sky didn’t fall.  In fact, according to the D.O.E. report, over 97 percent of teachers and principals were rated either “effective” or “highly effective.”  So, what does this mean for the future of VAM in New Jersey? And is it true that our 113,126 teachers and 4,058 principals are almost universally effective instructionally and administratively?

Let’s just call it: VAM is here to stay. Even the most evangelical anti-VAM crusader would be hard-pressed to insist, based on this year’s 97 percent effectiveness rate, that data-driven teacher evaluations undermine teachers’ due process rights to tenure. It would also be a tough sell to advocate reverting to our old binary system of ranking teachers which last year rated 99.2 percent of teachers effective. The Report notes that the old system “failed to differentiate strengths and weaknesses” but “educators are now evaluated through multiple measures that have provided much more detailed and individualized feedback about their performance and its impact on student growth.”

But here’s the catch: in order to quell unrest, Gov. Christie passed an Executive Order lowering the value-added portion of teacher evaluations from 30 percent, per TEACHNJ regulations, to 10 percent.  According to the Order, that percentage will increase to 20 percent next year and top out at 30 percent in the following year. Will 97 percent of teachers and principals attain effective or highly-effective ranks at a 30 percent rate? We may or may not find out: top N.J. legislators have suggested that the level remain at 10% for at least another year, adhering to the adage that patience is the better part of valor.

Are 97 percent of our teachers really effective or highly-effective?  It depends on how high you set the bar. The Implementation Report says that “across the state, the vast majority of New Jersey educators are demonstrating effective practice, a long-held belief that is now supported by at least one year of data derived from observation rubrics.” But, the Report concedes, “[a]although this year represents a big step in the right direction, there is much room for improvement.” For example, “results show that educators likely emphasized the achievable over the ambitious in 2013-14.” The D.O.E. anticipates that next year, when educators are more “comfortable and familiar with the process,” they will set more ambitious goals. And more ambitious goals may lead to less consistency of success.In fact, raising those goals may turn out to be the most challenging part of N.J. nascent efforts to differentiate teacher quality. In this sense, it’s like the Common Core: sure, most students succeed when the bar is low. What happens when the bar is raised? We confront the reality of lower rates of student success. Most likely, this same trend will apply to teachers and we can anticipate an evolution in straight-out anti-VAM rhetoric to more nuanced calls to minimize data infusion.

Finally, let’s not discount the 3 percent of teachers identified during this past year as either “partially effective” or “ineffective.”  That’s 2,900 teachers who during the year provided instruction and support for 13 percent of N.J. students, or 180,000 schoolchildren. We all agree (or most of us do) that the most important factor in a child’s education is teacher quality. Ineffective teachers deserve opportunities for professional development, mentoring, and support to improve. If they don’t demonstrate improvement (TEACHNJ gives them two years), they shouldn’t remain in classrooms and maintain tenure rights.It’s about those the educational needs of those 180,000 students, not the job security of 2,900 teachers.

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Laura Waters is vice president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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