Corzine, Christie, and NJEA

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Why is Corzine’s labor deal with CWA a bad sign for education reform in New Jersey?

The jury’s still out on whether a deal that precludes lay-offs of state workers is good or bad: Governor Corzine and his supporters say it’s good because the employees won’t get their raises until January 2011 and in the meantime we’ll have money to work with, while Chris Christie and his supporters say its bad because we’re just pushing off inevitable debt and maintaining a bloated work force. Take your pick. What is clear is that a deal that perpetuates the model that union employees have unlimited job security is bad for education in New Jersey.

The New Teacher Project, a non-partisan group, just put out a report called “The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness.” The report studied 12 districts in 4 states — Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio, and Colorado – and looked at teacher evaluation systems. NTP found that “all teachers are rated good or great” (99%, actually), that “excellence goes unrecognized,” that districts have “inadequate professional development,” and “poor performance goes unaddressed.”

Despite uniformly positive evaluation ratings, teachers and administrators both recognize ineffective teaching in their schools. In fact, 81% of administrators and 58% of teachers say there is a tenured teacher in their school who is performing poorly, and 43% of teachers say there is a tenured teacher who should be dismissed for poor performance. Troublingly, the percentages are higher in high-poverty schools. But district records confirm the scarcity of formal dismissals; at least half of the districts studied have not dismissed a single non-probationary teacher for poor performance in the last five years.

The equation of unionized employees with widgets – interchangeable parts with no acknowledgment of differentiated effectiveness – gets in the way of meaningful education reform. The CWA deal colors the union landscape by fostering the notion that performance is immaterial. It’s just like the NJEA leadership, which insists on treating their members as widgets, resisting any call for merit pay or tenure limits or more effective teacher evaluations. (In N.J., the teacher evaluation process is part of the local bargaining unit’s contract, negotiated with the evaluatees. Weird, huh?)

Our best teachers resent being relegated to a cog on a wheel. They would welcome having their excellence recognized and losing incompetent colleagues. It’s one of the attractions of the charter school movement (much stifled in Jersey because of the NJEA’s resistance and the D.O.E.’s lack of backbone) because charters are not tethered by an archaic and demeaning union culture.

New Jersey needs an educational system that doesn’t treat teachers like widgets. We recognize in myriad ways – the School Funding Reform Act, the D.O.E.’s new focus on differentiated instruction and individualized pupil plans – that our students require different strategies to succeed. Why wouldn’t that be true for their instructors? But until the NJEA leaders escape their time warp, we’ll all be stuck in a system that interferes with academic achievement for our kids and job satisfaction for our teachers.

It may be a leap to say that Corzine’s concessions to CWA paint him as too soft with union leaders to reform our educational system. It’s certainly a leap to say that Christie would do anything differently, or whether he has any understanding of the union/D.O.E./school advocacy dynamics that both drive reform attempts and undermine progress. Hey, Camp Christie — give us a clue.

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