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

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Attacks on Teacher Tenure Still Don't Make Sense

The attacks on teacher tenure keep on coming -- and they're as illogical as ever. From the Partnership for Educational Justice:
Newark, NJ—Earlier this month, the New Jersey State Department of Education released state and district level educator evaluation data from the 2014-15 school year. The data revealed that Newark employs more ineffective teachers than any other district in the state and more than five times the number of ineffective teachers in Camden, the district with the second highest number. In the 2014-15 school year, 2.4 percent of New Jersey teachers taught in Newark, but in the same year:
  • More than half (53.3 percent) of the state’s ineffective teachers were in Newark
  • Less than one percent (0.9 percent) of the state’s highly-effective teachers were in Newark
  • Additionally, 12.4 percent of Newark’s teachers received a less-than-effective rating, which was nearly eight times the statewide average (1.6 percent)
If we're going to buy into these numbers, we have to make a whole bunch of assumptions: that data suppression isn't a factor in the skew, that Newark's teacher evaluations are equivalent to other districts', that the unmistakable bias in Student Growth Percentiles isn't affecting these outcomes, etc.

But let's set all that aside for the sake of argument and agree that Newark has an inordinately high percentage of ineffective teachers compared to other districts. What's the solution, according to PEJ?
Despite carrying far more than its fair share of ineffective teachers, most teachers in Newark were rated effective, and 321 Newark teachers were rated highly effective in 2014-15. Recognizing that some of these effective and highly-effective teachers are at risk of losing their jobs while Newark Public Schools continue to employ a disproportionate number of ineffective teachers, six Newark parents filed a lawsuit on November 1, 2016, challenging the constitutionality of New Jersey’s quality-blind teacher layoff law. Under the current statute, when budget reductions force school administrators to lay off teachers, they must do so based only on the date teachers started in the district, with the newest teachers losing their jobs first. In districts like Newark, this “last in, first out” (LIFO) law forces school districts to lay off some of their best teachers while keeping ineffective ones. Newark Public Schools currently face budget cuts that will reduce state funding to the district by nearly 69 percent. [emphasis mine]
OK, hold it a minute:

Maybe the problem for Newark's schools isn't teacher tenure or seniority -- maybe the problem is persistent underfunding and the pernicious effects of charter school proliferation.

Newark has been screwed out of the state aid it should be getting according to the state's own law year after year. It suffers further injury thanks to the "hold harmless" policies of charter school funding the state imposes. And it can't access some of its potentially largest generators of revenue because of the state constitution's restrictions on school funding; essentially, Newark suffers from an inability to tax itself to raise money for its own schools.

Newark's schools are run by a State Superintendent, Chris Cerf, who has the power to veto the wishes of the duly elected school board. This past month, Cerf overrode the board's vote to dismantle the "One Newark" universal enrollment system, which puts the school district in the weird position of promoting charter schools at the expense of its own enrollment.

All of this is forcing the district to conduct layoffs, regardless of the wishes of local citizens. And yet the PEJ thinks gutting tenure and seniority rights -- not just for Newark, but across the entire state -- will somehow fix Newark's woes.

What makes this especially bizarre is that PEJ admits that funding does matter:
The six Newark parents who filed HG v. Harrington have also filed a motion with the New Jersey Supreme Court to intervene in Abbott v. Burke, a decades-old school funding lawsuit. The Newark parents’ Abbott motion, which is also supported by Partnership for Educational Justice, opposes the State of New Jersey’s request to remove the current court order for extra education funding to 31 high-need school districts, including Newark, paving the way for significant funding cuts to these same districts.
So PEJ says districts with large numbers of children in economic disadvantage -- who generally can't raise enough local revenue by themselves because their property values are too low -- should get more state aid. But they aren't getting the resources they need, and that's supposedly part of the reason districts like Newark have disproportionately high numbers of ineffective teachers.

PEJ's answer, however, isn't to concentrate on fixing differences in funding or student poverty; instead, they want to remove tenure and seniority from all New Jersey schools. Which will address these structural inequities by...

[chirp, chirp...]

I haven't shown this old table Bruce Baker made in a while:

Just a few miles from Newark, Millburn has some of the highest performing schools, public or otherwise, in the nation. The teachers there have tenure; they have seniority rights; they have union contracts. How does taking away these things away from teachers in both districts help reduce the inequities between them?

In other words, as I asked nearly six years ago: What is the independent variable?

A teacher who is effective in one district isn't always going to be as effective in another, for all sorts of reasons. So even if we could easily shuffle teachers between districts, there's no guarantee effective teachers in the 'burbs will be as effective in the cities. But let's, again, set that aside and ask: what does it take to get high-quality candidates to become teachers in districts like Newark?

As I've noted before, tenure has a value to teachers; take it away, and you'll have to replace it with some other form of compensation to attract good people to the profession. It's also worth noting that tenure and seniority don't just protect school staffs; they protect taxpayers and students, who benefit from having teachers who, once they've proven their worth, can stand up and defend their community's interests.

But who will want to teach in Newark -- a place whose schools seem to be a plaything for the politically ambitious -- without some level of protection against cronyism? Especially if wages remain the same as they were before tenure was gutted?

In Newark, teachers wait about 15 years before getting a significant bump in pay on the salary guide. Who will stick around that long if you can be fired under an innumerate and easily-gamable evaluation system the moment your pay goes up substantially?

For that matter: who wants to teach in a school with lead in the water? Where the buildings are unsafe and decrepit?

American History HS, Newark, NJ, 2011

Where staff face retaliation for speaking out?

If PEJ really believes "bad" teachers are concentrated in Newark, it ought to take a moment and reflect on why that may be. Teaching is hard enough; teaching at-risk children is even tougher. But teaching at-risk children in underfunded, unsafe schools is damn near impossible. If we want to make teaching in Newark more attractive, we should focus on making teacher working conditions -- which are student learning conditions -- better.

It makes no sense to blame the inequities between school districts on factors that they share in common, like tenure and seniority. We should be focusing on what is different if we want to equalize educational opportunity. The appellate court in California understood this, which is why they overturned Judge Rolf Treu's poorly-reasoned decision in the original Vergara case and found the state's tenure and seniority laws constitutional.

PEJ, under the direction of Campbell Brown, seems to think its best chance of gutting tenure is to shop around to different states and hopefully find another judge like Treu who is willing to buy into their arguments. They've got money to burn (and they won't reveal where it's coming from), so why not? If they can't make it work in California, maybe some judge here in Jersey will fall for their schtick...

But that isn't going to help Newark's students, who need safe, clean schools with well-paid, well-qualified teachers who can work free from political interference and cronyism. Gutting tenure does nothing to address the profound differences in the lives and schools of children living in different worlds; if anything, it will make those differences even worse.

1 comment:

Peter Greene said...

I think you're missing the point. Poorer schools need more money, which they could totally get if they could just go ahead and fire all teachers above the first step on the pay scale. Far better than spending more public tax dollars on Those People; just cut the amount that's being spent on Those Damn Teachers.