So it's not far-fetched to say that Christie's battle against tenure has been a proxy for the national battle against teacher workplace protections (in fairness, that's a battle being waged against teachers and their unions by both political parties).
Further: NJEA is one of the strongest teacher unions in the country, and New Jersey has arguably the highest-performing state-wide education system, if you account for the diversity of the student population. If this state can't fight back against the gutting of tenure, it's hard to imagine any state doing so.
Given all this: how is the fight to save tenure in New Jersey going? If you ask the NJEA, it's going very well:
Let's stop right here and acknowledge something: these are big wins. When Christie started his tenure jihad, he was talking about doing away with the process altogether, and he had both the political wind and the local punditocracy at his back. The original Ruiz bill - a bill that would have taken away due process and eliminated seniority - was actually a compromise position. It was no small feat to change the final bill to include these provisions; everyone should take a moment to understand that this was, in fact, a significant victory for teachers and the NJEA (and, for that matter, students).
While this op-ed from members of the New Jersey Teacher Activist Group does not acknowledge these wins - and I do think it should - it nonetheless explains the current situation quite well:
Well put - but allow me to say it another way. As I see it, we have three big problems with the current legislation:The tenure reform bill also calls for teachers to be evaluated in terms of student outcomes -- a.k.a, student test scores. Evaluations based on student performance, especially ones closely tied to tenure decisions, will have devastating effects. Not only will we see narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test, but places like Newark and Paterson, frequently cited as places with the most need of quality teachers, will have even more difficulty recruiting and retaining those good teachers. Within districts and schools, classes of struggling students and challenging populations, such as English language learners and students with disabilities, will be difficult to staff. Even teachers who love a challenge, of which there are many, will have a hard time rationalizing what could be career suicide.[...]This tenure bill feeds into the national meta-narrative around education in the past few years, casting the teacher in the role of villain. Placing the focus on tenured teachers takes the blame off the actual guilty parties -- those that relentlessly cut the education budget, forcing districts to lay off teachers and cut already inadequate resources, and champion privatization measures like charter schools and voucher programs (we are looking at you, Chris Christie). These moves disproportionately affect our most vulnerable children, those who cannot afford to lose quality, experienced teachers to a poorly hidden political agenda. In erroneously offering up individual teachers as the cause of the failure of disadvantaged kids and communities, we also ignore realities that reproduce societal inequality: poverty, institutionalized racism, and school structures and policies that perpetuate both. [emphasis mine]
1) The premise that "reforming" tenure will change student achievement is simply wrong. There is no evidence - none - that tenure has any effect on student achievement. There is no evidence - none - that instituting a state-wide teacher evaluation system will have any effect on student achievement.
The entire point of this exercise is to replace allegedly bad teachers with good ones. But there is no evidence - none - that we are overrun with "bad" teachers! The only "proof" that reformyists put forward is that there have been only 17 tenure cases in the last several years. That doesn't mean plenty of teachers weren't dismissed through other means, or before they earned tenure. And it doesn't mean the remaining teachers suck. Are there some bad ones? Yeah, of course. Is this a serious problem that could be fixed by tenure "reform"? Highly doubtful. The burden of proof remains on the reformyists, and they have yet to make a solid case.
2) Any teacher evaluation system largely based on student test scores runs the risk of narrowing the curriculum and promoting teaching to the test; further, that system will be far too unreliable and invalid to do much good anyway. Teachers teach the test when the test tests teachers - it's really that simple. Is teacher quality that large of a problem that it's worth subjecting students to a testing regime that will consume vast amounts of their time and vast amounts of school resources?
We also know that the current evaluation system in New Jersey will be based on Student Growth Percentiles and not Value-Added Modeling. VAM is a bad system prone to high error rates, but at least it attempts to account for student differences when evaluating teachers. SGP doesn't even make the attempt: if the student fails to improve on standardized tests, the teacher is punished, not matter who that student is or the circumstances in that student's life.
This is unacceptable. An error-ridden, unaccountable, secretive testing regime is simply not up to the job of making high-stakes decisions for teacher employment. But this is exactly what the Ruiz bill calls for.
3) The central problem in closing the "achievement gap" - childhood poverty - is being ignored while we focus on teacher "quality." Every country in the world demonstrates a correlation between socio-economic status and student achievement. The notion that the difference in all of these children's lives is the quality of their teachers is absurd on its face. We will not close the "gap" while we continue to put all of our focus on improving teacher quality - especially since no one has proved teacher quality is all that bad anyway.
Again: the bill going forward is far, far superior to its predecessors. No one should diminish the work of teachers, parents, unions, legislators, real reformers, and even snarky bloggers in removing some truly dangerous stuff from the Ruiz bill.
But neither should anyone think this legislation is fine the way it is. I am open to the political calculus of supporting an imperfect bill, but I am also gravely concerned that supporting this legislation will pave the way to an expansive testing regime whose only purpose is to inaccurately evaluate teachers.
Obviously, that is completely insupportable. No one should back this bill unless and until they are prepared to outline a strategy to make sure this testing regime never sees the light of day.