Tweaking NJ's Tenure Reform

All’s curiously quiet in the aftermath of Ed. Commissioner Christopher Cerf’s speech on Wednesday describing his five-part proposal for tenure reform. Sure, the leadership of NJEA hurled aspersions: “This proposal is an unproven step in the wrong direction. All reliable research suggests that evaluating teachers primarily on their ability to raise student test scores is bad policy, but that doesn’t deter Governor Christie.” Major editorialists, however, have generated little commentary.

Maybe they think Cerf’s not serious. Or maybe everything he said made sense. Or maybe they recognize that the public regards tenure reform as so inevitable as to be just a big yawn.

In fact, Cerf’s proposal for tenure reform is not so radical. There are plenty of studies out there that show that the essential ingredient to student growth is a series of effective teachers. Highly-regarded non-partisan research organizations like The New Teacher Project, the National Council on Teacher Quality, the Data Quality Campaign, Education Sector, Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (just to name a few) all testify to the our growing ability to use data to judge teacher effectiveness. The man on the street knows that our pre-Cambrian tenure system serves adults, not children. (Factoid from Comm. Cerf’s speech: over the last ten years 17 NJ public school teachers have been fired for incompetence and 1% of teachers received unsatisfactory ratings.) That's old news.

Of course, it’s not all blue sky. There are legitimate questions about the NJ Department of Education’s ability to build and manage the complex data system necessary to support value-added models for teacher accountability. (See yesterday’s NJ Spotlight for more on this obstacle to reform and Cerf’s comment that there were "’some very serious mountains to climb’ on the data system that would make it possible to link individual teachers with student performance.”) Is the much-maligned DOE really up to the task of creating state-wide teacher evaluation forms typically negotiated between local unions and school boards? Would that delegation of responsibility from district to DOE start only when contracts expire? Is the Legislature really prepared to stand up to NJEA executives? (Might be a tough sell. See today’s Glenn Beck award below.) Will local school boards cotton to this unusual usurpation of local control?

Here’s a few initial thoughts on the proposal:

1) Given that the DOE is going to be extra busy, do a meaningful needs-analysis. Do you really need to spend copious amounts of time, money, and staffers to perform unnecessary oversight at high-performing/functional districts? Get rid of QSAC (the monitoring mechanism administered to every district every three years) except for struggling districts, or at least cut it back to once every ten years. Trash the gratuitous regulations that waste everyone’s time and contribute nothing to student growth. Think of it as a fair trade for asking local school boards to hand over authority for negotiating teacher evaluation rules and templates.

2) Reevaluate the role of Executive County Superintendents and County offices. What role do they play in this rejiggered governance? If you back off on monitoring of high-performing districts, what should the county offices do with their free time?

3) No doubt you anticipate the outrage from home-rulists who will despise the suggestion that responsibilities historically delegated to local school boards (like negotiating and designing teacher evaluations) be transferred to the DOE. Instead of apportioning out superficial assurances, embrace the antipathy. Indeed, perhaps the next logical step is a state-wide salary schedule adjusted for regional variations in cost-of-living that imbeds extra pay for teaching in high-needs districts and hard-to-fill disciplines like math and science. How much tax money would we save in administrative time and legal fees if local districts out-sourced negotiations? Not to mention a giant step towards school district consolidation. Am I dreaming? Maybe. But if you make the unspeakable speakable, then centralization of a function or two, like teaching evaluations, will seem like a farthing’s worth of trivia.

4) Take a tip from the National Center on Teacher Quality and get rid of the extra money awarded to teachers with masters’ degrees. How many studies do we need to prove that this extra coursework is irrelevant to student growth? Instead, use that money for bonuses for high-performing schools or teachers.

5) As long as we’re dreaming about salary schedules, end the practice of back-loading significant salary increases to late in a teacher’s career. Shouldn’t big jumps in compensation come when a teacher earns tenure after those three consecutive years of effective teaching? Wouldn’t that encourage great young teachers to hang around longer?

6) Remind the public that we are one of only 14 states that mandate that lay-offs have to be calculated by seniority, or “last in, first out.” (The other thirteen are Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Wisconsin.)

One more tip: maintain that even-handed, measured tone so ably demonstrated by Comm. Cerf at Princeton on Wednesday. Sometimes less is more, especially with this crowd. The fight's not about whether or not New Jersey will reform its tenure statutes. We will. The challenge is to do it thoroughly, thoughtfully, and competently.

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