How About Interdistrict Teacher Choice?

The New York Times education writer, Winnie Hu, had no trouble in Saturday's paper distinguishing some of NJ’s wealthy and high-performing school districts from our poor, low-performing ones: Cresskill, Montclair, Ridgewood, Millburn, Westfield, West Windsor-Plainsboro and Glen Ridge, she writes, “have long attracted families because they offer some of the best public education in the state. But now many of these top school systems are preparing to reduce the academic and extracurricular opportunities that have long set them apart.”

“Have long set them apart.” It’s an irony-free description of NJ’s educational inequity despite decades of Abbott compensation and the hard line of accountability etched from No Child Left Behind legislation. Among are 591 school districts (and 566 municipalities) are intractably poor, failing schools. Leveling the playing field in NJ is a quixotic task. Sword-yielding education reformers tilt at the windmills of an inculcated culture of disparity with little appreciable difference in student achievement. We can’t cure poverty; we can’t break down district barriers unless we find the cohones to desegregate and move to county-wide districts, an unlikely scenario. School choice is an embryonic concept with a long, slow learning curve (although the DOE just received 36 charter applications, a new record). Public school systems founded on segregated neighborhoods are, perhaps, inherently inequitable. Westfield is not Willingboro and never will be, regardless of funding or charter school expansion.

Here’s what we know in NJ: throwing money at the problem doesn’t help, but excellent teaching does. It’s widely accepted that a child’s best chance at overcoming the deficits of poverty lies in the effectiveness of his or her teacher. From Eric Hanushek: “The difference between a good and a bad teacher can be a full level of achievement in a single school year.” From Linda Darling-Hammond: “this research indicates that the effects of well prepared teachers on student achievement can be stronger than the influences of student background factors, such as poverty, language background, and minority status.” It’s also widely accepted that it’s far more likely for poor children to have ineffective teachers. After all, if you’re a great teacher where would you rather teach -- Cresskill or Camden?

However, here’s one thing we can do to increase the presence of excellent teachers in our faltering urban schools: an Interdistrict Teacher Choice Program. Take our finest teachers and offer them more money to transfer from, say, Cresskill to Camden for 3 or 5 years. Of course, this would take buy-in from NJEA because each district has a separate bargaining agreement. It would also take appropriate data systems to identify our best teachers. But the research shows that such an initiative would increase our poorest students’ academic achievement; it would also be a baby step in the direction of overcoming our adulation of home rule and its progeniture, the most segregated school system in the country. Finally, moving great teachers to struggling schools would be a cool talking point on our next Race To The Top application as we begin to address inequity through a cooperative effort of the DOE and NJEA leadership. What’s to lose?

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