Lots of coverage today as NJEA released its reform proposals: check out the Star-Ledger (which focuses on the Christie Administration’s reaction), the Philadelphia Inquirer (which looks closely at NJEA’s proposal to quicken the currently glacial pace for removing ineffective tenured teachers), and NJ Spotlight (which compares NJEA’s proposals to those in Delaware and Massachusetts, both highly regarded public school systems that use student growth data to evaluate teachers).
It’s commendable that NJEA wants to speed up the process by which a district tries to remove a tenured teacher from its ranks for “inefficiency, incapacity, conduct unbecoming or other just cause.” Right now it takes longer than a year, and after 120 days school districts have to pay employees in tenure-limbo full salaries, not to mention legal costs and lots of administrative time. The Philadelphia Inquirer notes that “dismissals are rare in New Jersey” and “in 2008 there were 35 education-tenure cases, about one for every 6,600 employees.” Find another profession with that rate of ineffectiveness. On the other hand, don’t bother; it doesn’t exist.
And that’s the problem with NJEA’s proposal: it confers additional authority to teachers (or at least their union representatives) without the logical corollary: additional responsibility. In typical workplaces, additional authority includes additional responsibility for productivity or outcomes. The two go hand in hand, from secretaries to lawyers to engineers. But the proposal released yesterday divorces one from the other. It’s all authority and no responsibility.
For example, one piece of the package proposes that certain aspects of running a district be transferred from the aegis of school boards and administrators to the bargaining table. Here’s the list of what would now become negotiable items, though the text notes that the new legislation required “should include but not be limited to:”
• whole school reform issues (shared decision-making, school budget development, peer assistance, etc.);
• professional development;
• transfers and promotional matters;
• selection of instructional materials;
• class size; and
• issues related to chaperoning overnight field trips or weekend activities.
Presumably, if a district decided that it would benefit students to raise class size in order to pay for, say, technology that would facilitate independent learning, that decision would have to be signed off on by the bargaining unit.
Another proposal titled “Making Concessions Count for Kids” is based on a new bill before the Legislature (already passed by the Senate and NJEA “expects the Assembly to pass counterpart legislation”) that would require districts to use any money saved from salary and benefits concessions for the sole purpose of rehiring laid-off teachers. Again, strategic decisions usually in the hands of school boards and administrators would require buy-in from union officials.
It’s not really “school reform,” per NJEA’s p.r. package. It’s really union reform, or the expansion of union power, which would diminish the power of the general public through its representatives, school board members. This would make some sense if the package also included accountability measures – that responsibility piece that’s missing – like merit pay or (taking a page from Massachusetts) eliminating tenure in exchange for five-year renewable contracts. But accountability, the hallmark of national education reform, is absent from NJEA’s proposal.
Like everything, it’s a negotiation. Maybe that’s part of NJEA’s strategy: to propose something clearly unpalatable in the hope of moving towards some sort of compromise. If that’s true, then they’ve done a great job.
We’re not much for litmus tests here except for one: is it good for kids? In this case, it’s good for union members, and maybe happier teachers make happier kids. But that’s a pretty amorphous benefit within the context of improving schools. NJEA’s proposal tweaks a little here and there, but calling it “school reform” is a pretty big stretch of the imagination.