I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, November 26, 2012

An Open Letter To Randi Weingarten

Monday, November 26, 2012

Ms. Randi Weingarten
President, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO
Washington, D.C.

Dear Ms. Weingarten:

Allow me to start by saying that I am an admirer of your work as an advocate for both public education and America's teachers. While I, like the majority of New Jersey's teachers, am represented by the New Jersey Education Association (a state affiliate of the National Education Association, and, therefore, not affiliated with AFT), I have great respect for AFTNJ and the work they do in representing the teachers of Newark, Perth Amboy, and several other communities in my state.

I am, however, gravely concerned about the contract that was recently negotiated by the Newark Teachers Union and subsequently ratified by its members. To be clear: it's not only the content of the contract that troubles me. Your subsequent appearances in the media in defense of this agreement imply that you think the NTU-NPS agreement stands as a potential template for the rest of the state - including the many locals represented by NJEA.

Let me state this in no uncertain terms: Whatever you may believe about the teachers contract in Newark, it is most definitely not replicable in the rest of this state; further, similar agreements in other districts would be bad for the students, families, and parents of New Jersey and the nation.

Here, specifically, are my concerns about and objections to the Newark contract:

- The NTU contract is fueled by private finds that are not available to the rest of the state or nation. The merit pay bonuses come directly from Mark Zuckerberg's private grant to Newark's schools. Unless and until those private monies are available to all districts, no one should assume this deal is replicable anywhere else.

I am deeply troubled by the idea of a wealthy private citizen coming into a community where he doesn't live and buying educational policy; the notion strikes me as profoundly anti-democratic. But at least the funds for merit pay in Newark didn't come from the taxpayers. Any other district would have to get its funds for merit pay from revenues that could be used for many other purposes, including raising the overall pay of a district's staff. That's just unacceptable.

As you know, there is a troubling precedent of private funding for merit pay being withdrawn after a short time. I hope this doesn't happen in Newark, although I wouldn't be at all surprised if it did.

- Merit pay for teachers, despite over 150 years of experimentation, does not work. Contrary to the insistences of poorly-informed pundits and politicians, you and I both know merit pay, as conceived in this contract, has never substantially raised student achievement.

- The Newark contract will enshrine the use of standardized tests for compensation decisions, despite a large body of evidence that shows test-based evaluation is prone to high rates of error. You yourself have stated that Value-Added Modeling (VAM), which uses test scores to "rank" teachers, is "not ready for prime time." We both know that if bonuses are given out using VAM, people who deserved bonuses will not get them. And it doesn't matter if the scores are only part of the evaluation: some of the evaluation, all of the decision.

- New Jersey uses Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs), which are particularly bad for teacher evaluation; yet, by all indications, that's how merit pay decisions in Newark will be made. As Bruce Baker has explained, SGPs are even worse than VAM for teacher evaluation - yet the state seems committed to using them. No teacher in Newark should lose out on pay because the NJDOE insists on using SGPs improperly.

- State law does not require that compensation decisions be made based on teacher evaluations; there was no need to do this. The only high-stakes decision based on the new teacher evaluation law is dismissal, and even that can't happen without a right to appeal. It simply isn't accurate to imply that this merit pay system is a logical outgrowth of TEACHNJ; in fact, these merit pay bonuses, based on faulty evaluations, were exactly what the NJEA was fighting to stop when the law was drafted.

- There is an inherent conflict of interest when teachers unions participate in evaluations; the Newark contract amplifies this conflict. The NTU is going to have to come to terms with the idea that designing an evaluation system and representing teachers who feel they were treated unfairly by that very system are opposing activities.

Ms. Weingarten, I'll be frank: I think this contract is going to bring you and your members a world of trouble. You can't expect NTU's teachers to simply stand by and watch while they are denied the pay they deserve, all because it's impossible to create an evaluation system up to the job of differentiating teachers with the necessary fine precision. I'm afraid you have created a situation where you're going to have to work very hard for the next three years to keep morale up among your members.

I do think, however, that you could minimize the inevitable consequences you are about to face if you took a few simple steps:

- Appoint some of the critics of the deal to the Peer Oversight Committee. I'd go straight to the NEWCaucus and offer them a seat or two; it would go a long way toward smoothing over relations with your members.

- Do not state, imply, or endorse by silence the idea that this contract is a template for other districts. It most certainly is not; you do the NJEA - and, for that matter, teachers unions around the country - no favors by letting people believe this deal should be replicated elsewhere.

- Do whatever you can to minimize the use of standardized tests in the distribution of the bonuses. I'm afraid you may be stuck with this one, but if there is any way to lessen the impact of high-stakes testing on students and teachers, you need to do it.

Ms. Weingarten, understand one thing: like every other teacher in New Jersey, I want the best for all of my brother and sister educators. You may not represent me, but I am pulling for you, for the NTU, for AFTNJ, and for every teacher you represent around the country. I believe in unionization, I believe in collective bargaining, and I believe union leaders like yourself do the right thing when you make regular media appearances to engage those who demean our profession. I also give you great credit for regularly engaging your critics within the teaching community through social media and elsewhere.

So understand the spirit in which I write this. Understand that we can't allow the Newark contract to become an excuse for Chris Christie and his ilk to push policies we all agree are bad for teachers and bad for students. Understand that everyone who believes in the teaching profession has to stand together and fight back against the creeping corporatism that threatens to destroy our public schools.

Randi, I am on your team. Please be on mine.


This blog is a proud supporter of AFTNJ.
Thank you for all you do for the teachers of New Jersey!

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