Tweet from “Stop The Freeze NJ,” the facebook site devoted to “defending public education in NJ”: “Tenure bill going to committee on Monday. Spread the word.” In concert, NJEA is now voicing full-throated opposition to Senator Teresa Ruiz’s bill, set to be discussed by the Senate Education Committee on Monday, calling it a “harmful tenure bill” that would “essentially eliminate tenure by taking away due process rights from tenured New Jersey teachers” and “leave schools and teachers vulnerable to inappropriate political influence.”
What’s all the excitement? Senator Teresa Ruiz’s carefully crafted Bill S-1455 proposes to make some tweaks to current tenure law and address deficiencies that have plagued school districts across the state. It reflects many months of input from NJEA, NJ School Boards Association, and other stakeholders and represents some calculated compromises. It’s NJ’s best chance for any sort of tenure reform, yet opponents will be there in full force.
First let’s look at what the bill does and doesn’t do.
The bill does expand NJ’s current binary teacher evaluation systems. Currently all teachers are designated “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.” Sen. Ruiz’s bill offers more nuance: teachers would be rated highly effective, effective, partially effective, and ineffective, the same categories proposed by NJEA in its own tenure reform proposal.
The bill does not require that school principals (or School Improvement Teams) rate teachers based on value-added metrics, or simple test scores. Using student standardized test scores to measure teacher effectiveness is a new science, rife with contradictory research and mixed results. Sen. Ruiz’s bill bypasses this controversy by mandating that teachers be “partially” evaluated using “multiple measures of student learning that use student growth from year’s quantifiable measure to the next year’s quantifiable measure.” There’s a provision that allows districts to “determine the method for measuring student growth” in subjects where growth is not easily or conveniently measured. It’s a long way from Gov. Christie’s proposal that student test scores inform as much as 45% of teacher evaluations, and leaves lots of room for local district oversight and control. Nurses, social workers, and others in positions that don’t lend themselves to data-driven evaluations are exempt.
The bill adds (as NJEA’s proposal does) an additional year to the attainment of tenure. Right now it’s three years and a day after commencement of employment. If this bill was enacted, teachers would receive tenure after four years of either “highly effective” or “effective” ratings, surely not too onerous a benchmark.
However (and this is a big change), teachers could lose tenure privileges if they were rated either “partially effective” or “ineffective” and then didn’t move up one notch the following year. The emphasis would be on mentoring, professional development, and all other supports to help instructors improve their craft.
The bill requires “mutual consent” before an employee is moved from one school to another. In other words, both the teacher and principal must agree to the move, even if the teacher is tenured. If either one disapproves of the move, the teacher is assigned to a “priority hiring pool” and has a year to accept another position. After one year (at full pay), if no job is accepted than the teacher is out.
NJEA takes particular exception to mutual consent, especially in its expansion of a principal’s power to control his or her teaching pool. From NJEA material: “An effective teacher should not be left without a job simply because two principals decide to block her from being placed in a school.” But, in this era of accountability, shouldn’t a principal have some ability to control his teaching staff? And shouldn’t the need of the schoolchildren take precedence over the job security of the adults? Worth noting is that principals are also subject to mutual consent.
And – this is huge – Sen. Ruiz’s bill addresses the bane of school districts across the state and the country: LIFO, or “first in, last out.” LIFO mandates that when schools have to make lay-offs they do so without regard for a teacher’s classroom effectiveness. Nothing trumps years served. This is not a NJ problem, but a national one. Example from statute from Ann Arbor, Michigan:
If two or more teachers have the same seniority and the Board must decide on laying off one of the teachers, the last four digits of the teachers social security number will be used as a tie breaker. The lower number will have the most seniority.
NJEA claims that the bill eliminates due process for teachers. In fact, the bill simply streamlines the process — much as NJEA’s proposal does — to shorten the time frame by which the Commissioner and an Administrative Law Judge must render a verdict, once the employee initiates due process.
Our current system of teacher tenure is as archaic as, well, other elements of public education, like a calendar defined by the harvest season or the out-dated model of a teacher lecturing, chalk in hand, in front of a blackboard (or whiteboard or smartboard) to 25 or 30 kids. What other profession inoculates employees from any sort of accountability? (Indeed, sometimes life isn’t fair.) Sure, NJEA has some gripes. But this much-modified bill makes ample concessions to the concerns of the union hierarchy, offers professionalization to NJ’s teaching corps, and protects our good teachers. All states will make these modifications to teacher lifetime job security. It’s New Jersey’s turn now.