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, June 22, 2012

NJ Tenure Update

For my national readers: tenure in New Jersey is largely a parochial issue, but it does have national implications. Chris Christie is a darling of the Republican party and has been put on the short list for Romney's VP candidates for some time (although it will be considerably harder for him to stay there after this). The majority of Christie's schtick has been his war with the teachers unions; specifically, the NJEA. He has very specifically cited tenure "reform" as one of his signature issues.

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:

It was not always certain that tenure reform efforts would achieve broad consensus.  An earlier version of the Senate legislation, S-1455, contained a number of provisions that were unacceptable to NJEA and other education groups.  Among our concerns with the original legislation were:
  • New teachers could have been kept in a permanently nontenured state simply by giving them a single rating of partially effective once every three years. 
  • It would have eliminated seniority rights in layoffs.
  • It would have given principals de facto authority to fire tenured teachers simply by blocking their ability to transfer from one school to another.
  • Evaluations would have been conducted by teachers, rather than by certified administrators.
  • Worst of all, it would have eliminated due process rights by taking away the ability of teachers to contest the loss of their tenure or their job as a result of poor or unfair evaluations. 
  • And the whole process would have remained in the court system, with its long and costly hearings.
Put simply, that proposal would have eliminated tenure in all but name and left New Jersey’s teachers vulnerable to political manipulation and other mistreatment, with no meaningful recourse.  When a version of the bill with those elements still included was discussed by a Senate committee earlier this year, NJEA testified strongly in opposition.
As a result of extensive discussions and negotiations over the last several months, the bill has been amended to deal with all of those concerns.  Under the version NJEA supported this week:
  • Teachers are guaranteed a year of mentoring to begin their career.
  • They will earn tenure in four years, providing they have at least two ratings of effective or highly effective in the three years following the initial mentorship year.
  • Seniority rights are preserved, preventing districts from targeting experienced teachers for layoffs as a cost-saving measure. 
  • Evaluations will be conducted by certified administrators.
  • Due process rights are protected, so that no tenured teacher can be fired without the opportunity for a hearing before a highly qualified and neutral third-party arbitrator. 
  • And the cases are moved out of the courts, ending the costly and time consuming process that generated so much bad publicity and ill will toward tenure.
NJEA remains in discussion with the sponsors of both bills, as well as with other legislative leaders.  We are working to ensure our members’ rights to defend themselves against spurious tenure charges.
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:
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]
Well put - but allow me to say it another way. As I see it, we have three big problems with the current legislation:

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.


Unknown said...

Thanks for your great reporting! As a former NPS teacher, these pushes under Christie are deeply troubling. ~Frank

Unknown said...

Duke, in the discussion of teacher quality I never see one critical area discussed: college teacher preparation/degree programs. I am convinced that NJ made a disastrous mistake when it stopped accepting Bachelor degrees in Education for teaching certification, and instead insisted on subject matter majors with some education classes for certification.

I'm a product of the "old" system; I have a BA in Education (dual major in Elementary Education and Special Education) from a private university out of state. NJ would no longer accept my degree as qualifying for certification. My degree included 9 credits in teaching reading alone (i.e. *how* to teach reading), as well as 6 credits in diagnosing and remediating reading problems. That was in addition to a course in liguistics, 9 credits in *how to teach* other subjects, and two full semesters in student teaching (one for gen ed and one for special ed). I took 33 credits in Elementary Education, and 27 in Special Education (yes, it was grueling, but it prepared me well).

With NJ now requiring a subject matter major (such as English, biology, history, etc)--even for an elementary certification--, there is little time for education students to learn *how* to teach those subjects (methods and materials courses) and study brain science (how children learn). There is a huge difference between knowing the complex factors that led to the civil war, and knowing how to teach the social studies curriculum to 25 eight-year-olds.

I hear new teachers complaining that until they got a masters in Reading or Special Ed (many districts are now requiring dual certification), they had little knowledge in how to actually teach reading or what do do when students have difficulties, aside from what's in the Teacher Editions (blech).

In attempting to address teacher quality and effectiveness, and achieving the goal of having a great teacher in every classroom, rather than focusing on students' standardized test results, we should be talking about college and university teacher preparation curricula and requirements.

--(Your longtime reader) Lisa

Some Teacher said...

Regarding tenure. The theory is that a more experienced teacher is more likely to do well with her or his students. Time spent in the classroom matters. Tenure should never block the firing of a teacher who is doing things poorly, but should provide a set of hoops for the administration so that an older teacher is not fired for reasons that do not pertain to the effectiveness of the teacher.

Thanks for a comprehensive article on what is happening in your state.

isthisrob said...

Christie will probably veto the bill because it doesn't call for teacher executions in the event of poor standardized test performance.