Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Colorado tenure law considered at N.J. hearing

Big news yesterday in NJ as well, where DFER-NJ helped organize a hearing that could lead to NJ implementing Colorado's ground-breaking teacher evaluation/tenure law:


Colorado tenure law considered at N.J. hearing

Thursday, December 9, 2010
Last updated: Thursday December 9, 2010, 6:12 PM


A Colorado state senator told New Jersey lawmakers considering ways to fix tenure Thursday about a new law he pushed to make such job protection a "badge of honor."

Mike Johnston gave the Senate education committee details of a law passed in spring that requires teachers to get three consecutive years of effective evaluations before they earn tenure, called non-probationary status there. If they have two consecutive years of poor evaluations, they go back on probation. Those teachers can get help to improve and might eventually earn back tenure. If they don't, a district can dismiss them.

Having tenure in Colorado will mean, "Wow, this person is really one of the great practitioners in the field," Johnston said. "Too often it is viewed as something that protects low performers."

Johnston, a former teacher and principal from a mostly poor section of Denver, was among a parade of speakers at a hearing called by committee chairwoman Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, who is drafting a bill to fix tenure. Critics charge that the current system makes it too expensive to weed out bad teachers and does nothing to reward the best.

The crowded event at the State House annex marked lawmakers' efforts to weigh in on an issue that has been dominated by the noisy, bitter battle between Governor Christie and the state's largest teachers union.

Colorado's new system won't be rolled out fully until 2013. Now a 15-member council is spending months on the thorny task of defining effectiveness and determining how to assess it for teachers and principals. Just as Christie seeks for New Jersey, half of each Colorado educator's evaluation must be based on student growth, reflected by test scores and other measures.

Although Christie did not appoint union officials to his nine-member committee to improve evaluations, the Colorado council has representatives from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. The AFT supported Colorado's new law but the larger NEA opposed it.

"We thought when you do a process like this you want all the stakeholders involved," Johnston said in an interview. The unions "bring a much needed perspective. … The NEA did more to improve this bill than anyone else" by raising questions from the trenches, such as how to judge teachers facing students with special needs and migrant children who switch schools often.

The NJEA agrees that test scores can be one of multiple measures used to judge teachers, but says computer models that attempt to grade teachers by student data are too flawed to be a big part of high-stakes personnel decisions.

Dan Weisberg, a leader of the New Teacher Project, which helps districts recruit and develop talented teachers, said these statistical models were not perfect but it was important to use objective evidence in evaluations.

"If what we're looking for is a perfect system that guarantees us there will never be an unfair result for teachers we should give up," he said. "Batting averages don't give you a perfect look at the performance of a player, but they give you a generally reasonable, reliable picture."

Weisberg told lawmakers that without more rigorous, data-driven evaluations, virtually all educators get high marks. He showed the committee research arguing that removing the lowest-performing teachers would boost achievement and put the average American student near the top of the developed world.

A spokesman for Democrats for Education Reform, which advocates for charter schools and choice, said her group helped pay for the Colorado senator's trip.

Johnston said the Colorado law also ties principals' evaluations to teachers' effectiveness, so school leaders have extra incentive to develop faculty. "Now there is an incentive in state law for principals to do the most important work, which is to be in classrooms supporting teachers to improve their practice," Johnston said. "For too long people have been able to be a good principal because they show up at football games or break up fights in hallways or know all the parents. Those are good things but not as important as supporting teachers."

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