The Christie administration took its new teacher-evaluation system on the road on Wednesday -- and the maiden trip left few doubts there are going to be some bumps along the way.

State Department of Education staffers held the first of a half-dozen public presentations on the new system, this one at Toms River High School North.

Held at the end of the school day, it drew more than 200 people, many of them educators who will be judged under the new system. Many were from the Monmouth and Ocean counties, although some traveled from as far away as Ridgewood and Westfield.

Most of the two-hour session was a tutorial on the detailed process, unveiled last week, that will rate every teacher and principal based on a mix of measures -- including student performance – starting next year.

There were few objections voiced when the new regulations were initially presented to the State Board of Education. But questions and comments from the audience this week indicated the plans may get a tougher reaction as they are presented around the state.

At the end of the session, there were still plenty of people in the audience with questions, including local union leaders whose members will soon face the new rating system.

The president of the Toms River Education Association – one of the largest locals in the state, with 3,200 members -- said afterward that she remained worried about the most contentious part of the new process: the use of test scores in judging any of her members.

"How do they come up with these numbers?" said the union leader, Kathy Eagan. "My members don't know about the test score part, and I think that will kill them.

"What if a kid went through a hurricane like we did, or takes the test after learning his father is sick," she said. "None of the individual things with kids are taken into consideration, and that's the problem."
It's a familiar refrain, and one the Christie administration is sure to hear again around the state. The use of test scores and a new measure called "student growth percentiles" will be applied to only about one-fifth of teachers, but even that left some teachers uncomfortable.

"Don't you think that will create competition between teachers who have tested and non-tested kids, and not necessarily the collaboration we want?" asked Pamela Kellett, a science teacher at Neptune Middle School, during the presentation.

The state education officials tried to quell such worries.

"Actually, I think this is a huge opportunity to inspire collaboration in schools," answered Timothy Matheney, the state's director of teacher evaluation, who led the presentation. "The hope is a more data-oriented approach to encourage teachers to collaborate and look more at their practice."

Still, Kellett said she was still worried, as she packed up afterward.

"If tenure is an open door, and you are basing it upon growth and looking at a student as a score and a number, as opposed to the socio-economic conditions they are coming from, you are going to lose a lot of really good, dedicated teachers," she said.

There were a few revelations in the presentation. For instance, in addition to the use of test scores and SGP, much of the discussion focused on separate achievement measures for each teacher that will be developed by individual teachers and their principals.

Called "student growth objectives" (SGO), they may be locally developed tests or other assessments that determine whether a child or a class has mastered certain skills. For teachers in specialized areas, such as arts and physical education, as well as most teachers in the earliest grades and in high school, the SGOs will be the main measure of their students' growth.

But state officials conceded this was probably the least defined piece so far, and stressed that they are starting with having the SGOs accounting for a relatively small share of the overall ratings. Under the proposal, SGOs would represent about 15 percent of the final rating, compared to SGPs representing 35 percent of the rating for teachers in tested grades.

"It is possible that percentage will change as this evolves," Matheney said of SGOs. "But we want to be very careful about weighing that too high at this point... We recognize this is something new to the state."

Still, others said the evaluation system is being rolled out too quickly, as schools are just starting to grapple with training for the new evaluation system and even the accuracy of class lists is now coming under extra scrutiny, given the stakes.

"We don't set up classes for accountability purposes," said one special-education teacher. "I agree with the need to make this all more effective and tighten things up, but we need the time to do this right."

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