Why NJ Botched RTTT

The US Department of Education has released reviews of each state’s Race To The Top application. (Here's our reviews.) New Jersey placed 18th out of 40 states with 387 points out of possible 500. Rating categories, which are then further subdivided, are: State Success Factors (125 points); Standards and Assessments (70 points); Data Systems to Support Instructions (47 points); Great Teachers and Leaders (138 points); Turning Around Lowest Performing Schools (50 points); and General (55 points). The additional 15 points are an all-or-nothing category called Competitive Preference Priority 2: Emphasis on STEM. There are 5 complete reviews in the NJ package.

We did really well in Standards and Assessments (ranging from 63-69 out of a potential 70 points) and “General,” (scoring between 47-53 out of a potential 55 points) which includes school funding, charter schools and innovative schools (technically we have no charter cap, though some reviewers mused over our slow growth), and preschool education. One reviewer had this to say about our Interdistrict School Choice Program: “Interdistrict school choice has reached its capacity for participation. This one (identified) attempt — now at capacity — seems meager in light of the many types of innovative programs available to public schools and LEAs since 1999.”

Where did we get slammed? That’s no secret: State Success Factors, which includes NJEA support, and Great Teachers and Leaders. Under the former, where scores ranged from 66-94 points out of a potential 125, reviewers noted the “strong commitment” from local school boards and superintendents, and remarked on New Jersey School Boards Association's letter of support. However, the fact that only 5% of union presidents signed off on Memoranda of Understanding led one reviewer to note the “serious problems in obtaining union president signatures” and another to surmise that “the evidence indicates a challenging environment in terms of gaining broad-based support, with public opposition to the plan by the state's teachers union” One reviewer noted, “the dramatic lack of union support may compromise the State's ability to implement its a la carte reform agenda.” Another reviewer commented that “the union leaders who did sign (mostly from small, 1-6 school LEAs)
should be applauded for their courage to stand up for and support this important school reform effort.”

While reviewers praised us for “providing high-quality pathways for aspiring teachers and principals,” our ratings on the rest of the category “Great Teachers and Leaders” was lackluster. Everyone commented on our lack of clarity in measuring student growth for high school students. Our professional development and evaluation plan for teachers and principals was labeled “a conundrum” and “potentially weak.” More importantly, we were unable to demonstrate a “rigorous and statewide accountability system, given the lack of standardization with job descriptions and development plans.” We only collect data on whether teachers are “highly qualified,” instead of “highly effective,” and this limits “our ability to create strategies for retaining and/or rewarding highly effective teachers and leaders.” One reviewer notes,
The RTTT reform effort focuses more on individuals than institutions, per se, with the understanding that if individuals are supported in improvements, that the institutions will also show improvement. The Applicant's compensatory plan is more institution-based, i.e. the school, as opposed to the individuals in the school being recognized for their accomplishments. This school-wide approach may offer cover for those staff members who may not be "highly effective.”
Where does this leave us? We're nowhere without NJEA buy-in, including support for measures that allow us to distinguish our most effective teachers from our least effective ones. There’s a sense in which reviewers intimated that our proposal was overly conciliatory, with several noting that we have “set a low performance goal to remove 5% of its ineffective tenured and non-tenured teachers and principals by SY 2012-2013." The real conundrum for NJ is how to achieve this collaboration with NJEA’s leadership. Unless that happens, our next application, due in two short months, will be as unrewarding as the first.

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