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N.J. charters look at teacher evaluations

Following a parallel but very different path from their school-district brethren, New Jersey's charter schools are finalizing plans for how they will evaluate teachers and principals.

Following a parallel but very different path from their school-district brethren, New Jersey's charter schools are finalizing plans for how they will evaluate teachers and principals.

Unlike district schools, charter schools do not fall under the state's new tenure reform bill, known as TEACHNJ, which specifies much of how evaluations must be conducted and teachers rated.

And, very unlike district schools, New Jersey's charter schools are not required to use student achievement measures, including state testing, to measure their individual teachers - avoiding an issue that has roiled districts and their educators.

But the charter schools are still required to submit evaluation plans for state approval. Facing a June 30 deadline, the charter schools have begun to file those plans, which range from ones that mirror district plans to those that are entirely homegrown.

As of last week, about 10 plans had been filed by charter schools, including two released by the state - one includes student achievement as a prominent measure and the other doesn't mention it. The state would not release the other plans until they are approved, a spokeswoman said.

Red Bank Charter School used a system with four different measures of how teachers meet specific goals for raising student achievement levels by a certain percentage, both schoolwide and individually. In addition to classroom observations and professionalism, overall student achievement would represent 20 percent of the evaluation rating, which also would help determine salary levels for the teacher. Classroom observations, formal and informal, would account for 50 percent. The higher the evaluation rating, the higher the maximum salary, topping out at $70,000.

In contrast, Soaring Heights Academy Charter School in Jersey City is using a system in which teachers are observed by committees of fellow teachers from a minimum of 25 times to as many as 200 times a year.

There are no hard and fast percentages, but every teacher is part of the process, observing others at least 25 times. Teachers would be judged based on seven different standards including instructional strategies, planning, and content knowledge. There is no student performance component in the Soaring Heights plan.

"In a society seeking to improve teacher performance, Soaring Heights Charter School is unique," read the plan submitted to the state. "The teacher evaluation model derives its vitality from the fact that the school is teacher-managed and -operated, which leads to teachers being highly invested in each other's performance."

State officials maintain that teacher accountability for student progress comes in the approval and monitoring of the charter schools as a whole, and those that don't ensure it from their teachers won't see their schoolwide performance meet the state's overall requirements.

Unlike district schools, they said, those charters that don't achieve those standards face possible closure.

"In general, we believe this is up to the school to decide what works for them," said Amy Ruck, director of the state's charter school office, which must sign off on the plans.

The fact that charter schools were left out of the new tenure law was a sore point for some of the state's larger school organizations, especially its teacher unions.

Even though close to a dozen charter schools are members, leaders of the New Jersey Education Association said they tried to include charter schools in the new law.

"NJEA has always believed that public charter school teachers should be covered by the same certification, tenure, and evaluation requirements as public school teachers," said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA's communications director. "If the Christie administration believes those requirements will result in excellent teaching and enhanced student learning, why wouldn't they agree with us on this issue?"

The head of the state's charter school association said New Jersey's charters already face some of the toughest regulations in the nation.

Charter schools "are held to the highest level of academic performance in that if charter schools do not produce satisfactory results, then the state can move to shut down a school," said Carlos Perez, director of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.

"This is part of the balance between granting charter schools greater freedom while at the same time demanding higher accountability for the freedom for educational innovation," he said.