Commissioner Proposes Sweeping Changes in How Educators & Schools Are Evaluated

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With $400 million in Race to the Top funds up for grabs the Christie Administration unveiled a sweeping plan May 7 to overhaul the state’s education system and pay teachers based on how their students perform in the classroom. The proposal – which would fundamentally change how students teachers and school districts are evaluated – is being met with some skepticism.

The Governor said adopting the proposed changes are “very necessary” to get the much-needed federal funding for the cash-strapped state. But it was unclear if the governor can get the reforms through the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
“We stand shoulder to shoulder with the president on this” Gov. Chris Christie said. “This is an incredibly special moment in American history where you have Republicans in New Jersey agreeing with a Democratic president on how to get reform.”

Opponents however argue that the proposal relies too heavily on standardized test scores.

New Jersey’s first attempt or Race to the Top money was rejected in March.

The reforms unveiled May 7 call for a new statewide computer system to track how each student in the state is doing every quarter. That data would be used to make decisions about everything from teacher pay to layoffs state officials said.

Teachers would also have to wait five years instead of three to get tenure under the proposal. The state would also start a “bonus pool” to reward teachers who work in the state’s lowest-performing districts and allow the best-performing teachers to open their own schools.

“It is our responsibility to implement these kinds of reforms” said Education Commissioner Bret Schundler who unveiled the plan. “It is what is morally right and it will bring dramatic improvements in the education system to the benefit of all children.”

However Schundler said many details – including the cost of the new statewide computer system – have not been worked out.

Schundler said his first step will be to ask the Legislature to approve a simple measure stating that New Jersey will use “student learning as the primary yardstick” for measuring teachers. He hopes legislation will be introduced the week of May 17 and approved before June 1 the day the Race to the Top application is due.

Asked if he thought the Legislature could work that quickly Schundler said: “You might say it’s a long shot. I’d say is it worth it for $400 million?”

Other proposed changes include:

  • Establishing a “teacher performance index” to evaluate teachers and school leaders. Students’ performance in the classroom will count for at least 51 percent of their teachers’ evaluations.
  • Giving bonuses to teachers willing to work in classrooms with “a high proportion of at risk students.”
  • Making layoff decisions based on teacher job evaluations not seniority.
  • Simplifying the system for closing failing schools opening charter schools and creating small teacher-led Achievement Academies within school districts.
  • Overhauling the teacher credential system so more out-of-state candidates will be able to apply for open jobs.

Officials from all of the state’s nearly 600 school districts were invited to discuss details of the proposal with Schundler May 10 at the War Memorial in Trenton. As of today 389 people had agreed to attend. The initial reaction from education leaders was mixed.