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

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Questions Newark Teachers MUST Ask About Their Contract

UPDATE: NJ Spotlight published the highlights of the contract and the contract itself here.

I am afraid some of my questions below have been answered. Stand by...

The Newark teachers contract is the most important topic in New Jersey education right now - so I'll be writing a lot about it over the next few days. But let's get a few things on the table first:

I am a union guy. I am for collective bargaining and union representation for teachers. I'm an NJEA member, but I respect and admire AFTNJ. I have never questioned the motivations of a teachers union leader; I genuinely believe they are fighting for the teachers - and by extension, the students.

I also know how hard it is to negotiate a contract. Somethimes, you have to give something up to get something more important. I don't know what AFT president Randi Weingarten or Newark local president Joe Del Grosso have had to deal with; I do know it's a hard job and I don't doubt they have the best interests of Newark's teachers first and foremost in their minds.

So understand the spirit in which I offer this post and the several to come. I am trying to make things better for teachers in New Jersey; I am sure Randi and Joe are as well.

But this contract raises some serious questions that Newark's teachers need to ask. And since Newark is the largest district in the state, the final agreement will affect all of us in New Jersey. To that end, here are six questions to which Newark teachers deserve candid answers:

1) Will my chances for getting a bonus be affected by my students' standardized state test scores? Because, if they are, it will be a disaster.

Do I really need to provide links at this point? It is a terrible idea to use student tests to evaluate teachers. The tests are poorly designed, poorly graded, and unvetted. The ratings based on scores have huge error rates. It's nearly impossible to disentangle teacher effect from peer effect. Most teachers don't teach subjects where students take standardized tests, so the policy is inconsistent. The practice will encourage teaching to the test. Cheating is running rampant. Testing is stressing out kids.

Remember: even if only part of the evaluation is based on standardized tests, the tests become ALL of the decision. If this merit pay bump is based even partially on standardized tests, lord help Newark.

2) If my evaluation is based in part on test scores, will Newark use the state's Student Growth Percentiles in my evaluation? Because, if it is, that's completely inappropriate.

This is one of the most under-reported problems with New Jersey's use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers. Dr. Bruce Baker has led the way on this issue; Newark teachers, you MUST read his work to understand the implications of what you may be facing.

The short version is this: in New York City, teacher ratings at least tried to separate teacher "effect" from score gains. There was at least an acknowledgment that it's easier to get a big score gain from a child who is not in poverty, or who speaks English at home. The statistical models did a terrible job teasing out the teacher's role... but at least there was an attempt.

There is no attempt to find the teacher's effect on student test scores in New Jersey's proposed current evaluation model. As Baker points out, even the designers of SGP's say there is no attempt to attribute responsibility for score increases/decreases to teachers or schools.

Newark teachers: is your pay going to be determined by a process that doesn't even try to find your effect on your students' scores?

3) How exactly will Newark use teacher observations in my evaluation? Because, if it's calculated like the ones in Washington, D.C., it will be falsely precise and falsely accurate.

Under Michele Rhee, Washington took an observation rubric and "averaged" out the scores over the course of multiple observations throughout the year. This is inappropriate and mathematically unsound. Will Newark follow down this path?

4) Is there any arbitrary limit on the number of teachers who can be rated "highly effective"? Because, if there is, that is unfair.

Why would anyone believe that only 5% or 10% or 15% of Newark's teachers are "highly effective" every year? What if more are that good? What if less are? A teacher should be judged on how good her work is, not on how good her work is compared to other teachers.

5) How will Newark assign "Highly Effective" teachers to schools, and how will principals assign students to "Highly Effective" teachers? Because parents are going to want to know why their child didn't get an "Highly Effective" teacher when their neighbor did.

This is one of the consequences of letting people with little practical education experience dictate policy. When parents find out that a scant few teachers are "highly effective," they're going to want to make sure their children get those teachers. But if there are only a few to go around...

You can imagine the rest. Does Newark have a plan to deal with this?

6) The money won't always be there; what happens when it runs out? Because it most certainly will.

Michelle Rhee put a merit pay system in place in Washington, D.C., using private funds. But when she left, the funds left. What happens in a few years when Zuck's bucks are no longer available? Does anyone have a plan for then?

Each of these questions deserves more time in future posts - stand by...

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