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What it is: The Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy think-tank, this week released a report titled “The State of Teacher Evaluation Reform,” which looks at new teacher-evaluation systems in New Jersey and five other states as they continue to evolve under new state and national mandates.

The Center for American Progress

Who wrote it: The report’s author is New Jersey’s own Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University. McGuinn, who chairs Drew’s political science department, specializes in federal education policy.

What it says: The report focuses on states’ capacity to implement new teacher-evaluation systems mandated through the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top competition, which provided funding to states to develop such systems with strict conditions for what would be permitted. Overall, McGuinn wrote, there are a number of tall challenges facing each state, starting with tight timelines and limited resources.

Communication is key: “The learning curve for local education agencies, state education agencies, and the U.S. Department of Education during the implementation of new teacher-evaluation systems will be steep and mistakes will inevitably be made, but it is crucial that the work be transparent and that information about effective methods be shared up and down the education delivery chain.”

What it says about New Jersey: New Jersey fares pretty well in McGuinn’s study, which finds it is taking a deliberative approach to instituting a new teacher- evaluation system through a pilot program that so far encompasses 30 districts. The fact that it was agreed to through a new tenure-reform law with bipartisan support only helps, the study says.

The Center for American Progress
Quitman Street Community School in Newark. (Photo by Stephen Nessen, WNYC)

Yes, but … : New Jersey still faces a host of challenges as it seeks to have a statewide program in place by 2013-14, McGuinn says, ranging from whether the state Department of Education has enough staff to oversee such a plan to the difficulty of insuring quality programs in more than 550 districts.

Quote: “New Jersey is a strong local-control state, and that is clearly a challenge,” McGuinn said in an interview. “Gov. Christie and Chris Cerf (the education commissioner) want to put in place a top-down mandate, and we have almost 600 districts inclined to go their own way.”

Other states: Also studied in the report are Colorado, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Tennessee. They were chosen with New Jersey as states that are closed to adopting statewide models.

Who’s best? McGuinn, in a separate interview, said all of the states have faced one struggle or another in trying to put statewide systems in place. But he said Delaware and Tennessee have been at it longest and have seen the most progress, if not outright success.

All very different: It is not easy to compare the efforts in each state because they are approaching the task differently, McGuinn said. For some, there is a single evaluation model for the entire state, which very different from the pilot program in New Jersey, where each district can choose from a menu of options. Delaware and Tennessee, for instance, also have far more money to spend on the program and its training; both were early winners of the federal Race to the Top funding competition.

What’s especially different about NJ: Of the six states studied, New Jersey was the only one to start piloting a new evaluation system before having a new law in place, McGuinn said. “That really helped inform the statute,” he said.

What’s left out: McGuinn doesn’t delve much into the most controversial component of all these programs: the use of student performance as one of the measures of a teacher’s evaluation. McGuinn said few states have full student data systems ready to use in rating teachers, so he plans to save the issue for another study. “The short answer is they are not ready yet,” he said.

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