A Warm Welcome To NJ Spotlight,

the newest online news and analysis source in the Garden State. Just launched this week, NJ Spotlight is spearheaded by education reporter John Mooney of Star-Ledger, Bergen Record, and New York Times fame; Tom Johnson, veteran reporter for the Star-Ledger on energy, environment, and telecommunications issues; Publisher Kevin Harold, former VP of Operations for Rand McNally and Senior VP of Businessweek; and Managing Editor Lee Keough. NJ Spotlight focuses on budget, education, energy and environment, and healthcare. (Full disclosure: NJ Left Behind will have a regular column at NJ Spotlight.)

For example, today John Mooney looks at NJ’s Race To The Top application (due in 25 days and 6 hours, according to Democrats for Education Reform’s stopwatch). Comm. Schundler is advocating for the application’s focus on merit pay and tying student growth to teacher assessments.
"Delaware and Tennessee [the winners in the first round] didn’t just say they were thinking about this," Schundler said. "Delaware passed the law that said student learning will be the measure by which we evaluate teacher performance."
The elephant in the room, of course, is NJEA’s strident opposition to using student growth as yardsticks to measure teacher effectiveness. However, yesterday Schundler met with NJEA President Barbara Keshishian and Executive Director Vince Giordano who, according to The Record, “brought researchers’ documentation to the commissioner to show flaws in systems that evaluate teachers by student performance. The union has long opposed efforts to tie pay to student achievement, saying such systems are unfair to teachers with challenging pupils and creates too much pressure to teach to tests.”

Yet we’re nowhere without it the appropriate data systems. DFER’s tipsheet to NJ on how to improve our scores from last time (when we limped to the finish line in 18th place) notes that "the state needs a much more rigorous plan to evaluate teacher effectiveness. At least half of a teacher’s effectiveness rating should be based on the academic growth of his or her students, as the top-scoring states both demonstrated. New Jersey also needs to detail its plan for how to more equitably distribute qualified and effective teachers."

This battle of wills over two separate yet related elements -- tying student growth to teacher evaluations and awarding merit pay for educational success -- may very well prove to be the deathknell for NJEA-buy-in. (Whether that matters or not is another story.) Here's an idea. What if we squarely acknowledge that NJ's educational tragedy is, as President of the Latino Alliance Martin Perez, put it at the "Crisis and Hope" conference in Princeton on Wednesday:
NJ has some of the best public school in the United States. The problem is that Black and Hispanic kids are not in those schools.
Yeah, yeah, it's the old Abbott problem: we have some of the best schools in the nation and some of the worst, and our infrastructure bans kids in the worst from attending the best. (Fact: Raymond Abbott, the eponymous plaintiff in the Abbott cases, just got out of jail.) So can we create a system that honestly acknowledges that we have two separate and unequal school systems and use merit pay for the schools on that list? Can that hard truth form the basis for our application, one that directly addresses our indefatigable achievement gap? In other words, set up a data system that evaluates all teachers, regardless of where they teach, on student growth. But offer bonuses -- merit pay, if you prefer -- to teachers who are able to teach in our toughest schools and succeed with poor urban kids. Think of it as a pilot for state-wide merit pay, but start where we need it most. Such an approach might prove more palatable to NJEA's leaders and it sure wouldn't hurt to have their signatures on our RTTT application.

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