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The Coming Year in Education -- Bigger Questions, Higher Stakes

2013 is the year that educational theories like tenure reform and online charters run into reality.

Tenure reform, teacher evaluation, charters, school turnarounds, state oversight . . . There was no shortage of education news in 2012, but it's the coming calendar year that will see those issues put to their first real tests.

Throw in an election year for the governor and Legislature, and that leaves a lot of unanswered questions. As 2013 gets into gear, here's a look at some of the more pressing ones that are likely to be addressed -- if not answered fully in the coming year.

Will teacher evaluation systems required by education reform law take hold?

At the start of the year, the selection of teacher evaluation systems appear largely on track. The law originally required that every district have an evaluation system approved for teachers and principals by the end of 2012, but the state has already shown some flexibility, moving the reporting deadline to February 15. Nonetheless, many districts have made their choices or are close, and there is no indication that districts will be unable to at least start the process this year.

How well it goes after that is a big question in and of itself, with 30 pilot districts that have been testing the systems for a year already conceding that there are many challenges, from training staff to agreeing on measures beyond test scores, to determining how and if students are learning -- particularly in grades and subjects that are not tested.

And that doesn’t even address the uncertainty as to how to use test scores. In early 2013, the state plans to roll out its measurements of student progress, including the use of of a methodology known as “student growth percentiles.” It puts a student’s scores from one year to the next up against those of comparable students, and then matches them to a particular teacher in that year.

If the debate about using student test scores to evaluate teachers was heated, it could go nuclear when teachers get their specific ratings. It has sparked furious exchanges in California and New York, to name just two states, and New Jersey is not likely to be an exception.

Will New Jersey get its first real look at virtual schooling?

That was one the primary issues to come from last year's debate about how the state will approve and monitor charters. The larger issue has been simmering for a few years and centers on whether the Christie administration was approving too many charter schools in general, especially in relatively well-performing districts. While that’s not settled, the state Department of Education under Commissioner Chris Cerf have somewhat calmed that storm in pulling back those approvals to a scant handful a year.

The next question was if the administration would start green-lighting online charters that clearly want to gain a toe-hold in a state with some of the most generous education funding in the country. And that remains an open question.

Two online charter schools that were in partnership with the nation’s largest online schooling company, K12 Inc., have received preliminary approval and were on their way to open last year. But neither won final approval to launch, as policymakers, legislators, and advocates continued to argue about if the schools should be allowed to proceed and -- more fundamentally -- how they are to be defined. Two other charters have opened based on a blended or hybrid model that includes both online and face-to-face instruction.

Deliberation over a new charter school law is likely to get a lot of attention in the coming year, including whether there should be added measures of accountability. Both legislators and advocates expect virtual and hybrid charters to be a big part in that deliberation.

Meanwhile, the two virtual charters are again set to open next fall -- one out of Newark and the other out of Monmouth-Ocean counties, so New Jersey may get some real-life lessons relatively soon.

Continue reading on NJSpotlight.com.

NJ Spotlight is an issue-driven news website that provides critical insight to New Jersey’s communities and businesses. It is non-partisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded.

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