Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Teacher Ratings Can Strain Schools

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Teacher Ratings Can Strain Schools

Article excerpt

New Jersey's law requiring districts to start new teacher evaluations this year has become a bonanza for the firms that are helping schools comply.

Many districts have spent tens of thousands of dollars on new online tools for collecting data on teachers' goals and techniques in the classroom, and training staff members how to use them. Many superintendents are grumbling that on top of the enormous investment of time required to conduct more frequent and in-depth evaluations, these bills are an unfair financial burden imposed by the state.

Ridgewood, for example, has spent $40,000 for a new data system and extensive training on how to use it. Fair Lawn has spent $33,000 so far. And Glen Rock and Hawthorne have paid $25,000.

One four-school district in Ocean County took its complaints further last week, alerting lawmakers and superintendents across the state that its Board of Education had passed a resolution asking Governor Christie to pay it $206,540.61 annually for complying with the new rules -- and to compensate all districts for their extra costs as well.

When state leaders "come up with these great ideas, I don't think they realize there is a dollar value" to them, said Laura Venter, school business administrator in Berkeley. She said the district had to hire two additional supervisors just to handle evaluations. In a small district, she added, "we don't have as much wiggle room."

These new expenses represent mere fractions of multimillion- dollar budgets. But superintendents say every penny counts when they are laboring under a 2 percent cap on tax levy increases and facing mounting costs for technology, insurance and special education. Many applaud the goal of giving teachers more stringent evaluations but express frustration at the price and complexity of the state's mandates. The new state rules typically require at least three annual observations of each tenured teacher, up from one before.

Some argue that such micromanagement is unnecessary in schools that are already demonstrating high achievement.

"I would have allowed local schools to have greater control over this process," said Patrick Fletcher, superintendent of River Dell Regional and president of the Bergen County Association of School Administrators.

"My opinion is we didn't have to go to this length to improve, at this cost," added Fletcher, whose district provides middle school and high school education for River Edge and Oradell.

As part of the tenure-reform law passed last year, the Christie administration overhauled evaluations in hopes of boosting the quality of instruction, rewarding the best teachers and removing the worst. Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, disputed superintendents' claims that the new evaluations imposed unfair expenses. He said that state aid could be used to pay for some professional development and that buying data tools was a choice, not an obligation.

Different options

Indeed, some district leaders have chosen software available free online, or used Excel spreadsheets to crunch numbers tied to evaluations. But many superintendents say the state's requirements are so intricate they need to buy high-tech help.

Each teacher has to be rated on a scale of 1 (ineffective) to 4 (highly effective) after observations of his classroom techniques, and another rating of 1 to 4 on how well his students meet certain academic goals. Further, teachers of Grades 4 through 8 in math and language arts will get a state-made rating of 1 to 4 on how well students progress on standardized tests.

These elements carry different weights. A state memo says that a fifth-grade math teacher, for example, who gets 2.60 in observations, a 2.75 in helping her students meet academic targets, and a 3 in test score gains would end up with a final grade of 2.74. She would be deemed "effective" -- because the cutoff for earning that rating is 2.65.

Aside from soothing some teachers who bristle at being tagged by a number, administrators have to compile an array of calculations -- and prepare observers to give fair, consistent reviews. …

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