Gov tenure comments draw ire from NJEA

Jessica Calefati | The Star-Ledger
04/08/11

NEW YORK — Gov. Chris Christie Thursday continued to push his tenure-reform proposals, saying even teachers know the system needs to change — a comment that drew ire from the state’s largest teachers union.

Speaking at an event sponsored by the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank, Christie reiterated the need to base qualifications for teacher tenure on high student achievement and excellent teaching.

“I don’t want to end tenure,” the governor said to a small audience of about 30 people. “I want tenure to be based on merit.”

Over the past few months, Christie said he and acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf have visited districts and spoken directly with teachers, “no union reps, no administrators in the room, and no press either.”

“What I found was not one teacher who doesn’t understand that we need to reform the system,” Christie said. “They all know it.”

While saying his education reforms are not an assault on teachers, the governor did again criticize their union, the New Jersey Education Association. He called union leaders “thugs” and “bullies” who oppose real reform.

“This is not an issue of attacking teachers. This is not about saying teachers are bad and should be thrown out of schools,” Christie said. “This is first and foremost about our children and those teachers who are really good and care about our children and how they can be empowered to prepare those children for higher education or a career.”

The NJEA didn’t buy it.

Reached after Christie’s speech, union spokesman Bruce Baker said the governor spends so much time name-calling because he wants to divert attention from the substance of his plan. He accused Christie of having a “political vendetta” against the union.

“What the governor’s policies actually mean is a massive expansion of testing,” Baker said. “This is the exact thing that has frustrated parents with the federal No Child Left Behind law, and under Christie, it will be made much worse.”

The governor’s plan calls for evaluating teachers annually and giving equal weight to student achievement and classroom observations. Only teachers with three consecutive years of high ratings would receive tenure. Those teachers would also qualify for pay raises.

Cerf first unveiled details of the plan in a recent address at Princeton University. Specifics about teacher evaluations were announced last month by North Brunswick Superintendent Brian Zychowski, who chaired the governor’s evaluations task force.

Using test scores to evaluate teachers will require the state to create exams for subjects and grades that now are untested. Currently, 4th-, 8th- and 11th-grade students are tested in math and language arts.

The New Jersey School Boards Association praised Christie’s calls to replace lifetime tenure with an evaluation system linked to job performance, a change the association has sought for 30 years, executive director Marie Bilik said.

“Teachers should not fear tenure reform,” Bilik said. “The majority of our teachers are dedicated professionals, and state-to-state comparisons of overall student performance illustrate the high level of achievement in New Jersey.”

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