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Vol. LXIII, No. 28
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
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Hiring the Right People: PRS Revisits the Evaluation Process

Ellen Gilbert

“It doesn’t matter what kind of curriculum you have,” observed Princeton Regional School (PRS) District Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, Public Information, and Community Relations Lewis Goldstein in a recent conversation about teacher evaluation. “Everything depends on quality of instruction. Evaluation has to do with hiring the right people.”

Mr. Goldstein and other PRS administrators will be revisiting Princeton Public School’s teacher evaluation process this summer. A review done “three or four years ago,” he noted, “didn’t go too far.” A more in-depth study took place in the late 1990s, “way too long ago.”

Princeton’s reconsideration of its teacher evaluation procedures is timely: a recent New York Times editorial, “Truth in Teaching,” described a “startling new report” from The New Teacher Project, a nonpartisan New York research group, that conducted surveys of more than 16,000 teachers and administrators in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, and Idaho.

The results of the study, called “The Widget Effect,” were dismaying, revealing that although “teachers are singularly important to student success, our schools treat teachers as interchangeable parts, not individual professionals. Excellence goes unrecognized and poor performance goes unaddressed. This indifference to performance disrespects teachers and gambles with students’ lives.”

While Mr. Goldstein chose not to comment on the editorial or the report that inspired it, he was happy to talk about the coming discussion on teacher evaluation in Princeton. “The conversation will start with administrators,” he noted. “Eventually, we’d like to have a dialogue with teachers.” The time frame for the entire process, he said, is not clear.

“It’s all about perception,” he commented. There is a notion that “once you get tenure, everybody slackens off. It’s not true that student test scores will be lower, and behavior problems will increase. It’s not happening; students are thriving, and interest in the students who need the most help is high.”

Although state mandates “limit creativity,” according to Mr. Goldstein, he foresees ways of optimizing certain requirements. In lieu of an end-of-year performance review, for example, a teacher might report on a research project of particular personal interest. He also suggested that there are cost-saving benefits to be had “when teachers are learning and implementing new things.”

Prior to coming to PRS in 2000 as the director of Human Resources, Mr. Goldstein taught education at the college level, worked in government, and was, for a while, a journalist. In 2002 he was promoted to assistant superintendent. “If you like people, you like this job,” he observed. “If you like to be blamed for everything, you will like this job,” he wryly added. A jar of M & Ms, prominently placed on a table in the middle of his office, presumably helps with the rough edges.

One of the rough edges in teacher evaluation, which, he said, comprises about 15 percent of his job, may have to do with incentives, or “pay for performance.” Mr. Goldstein foresaw interest in teacher incentives as early as 1980, when he delivered a paper on merit pay at an international conference. “There was a lot of resistance to it at that time. Today, however, the private sector often uses models of it,” and, he pointed out, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has expressed interest in compensating teachers for students’ improved test scores. “Twenty-six years later they’ve caught up with me,” Mr. Goldstein commented.

In addition to incorporating teachers’ ideas about evaluation into this summer’s study, Mr. Goldstein is mindful of the fact that the district will probably be operating with fewer resources in the future. When changes occur, he added, “there’s always going to be resistance. But if it’s change people can look at and understand — if they’re part of the process — they’ll be willing to put a toe in the water.”

For more information on The New Teacher Project see The site includes a link to the entire text of “The Widget Effect.”

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