Fine Print: Sen. Ruiz's New Tenure Bill
John Mooney | N.J. Spotlight
Synopsis: The bill (S-1455) is the latest working version of a measure to revise teacher tenure and evaluation in New Jersey.
Primary Sponsor: State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)
What it does: The new proposed Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey (TEACHNJ) Act makes key changes in Ruiz’s original bill filed last year. It tightens some provisions on how evaluations would be conducted and by whom; adds requirements for helping all teachers; and more closely aligns other provisions with changes sought by Gov. Chris Christie.
What it means: Ruiz has spent the better part of six months meeting with stakeholders to come up with a final bill that she contended would draw the widest possible support. Even before the revision, the bill was given pretty good odds of passing, with support from the Christie administration and some of the Democratic leadership, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Burlington). It has yet to be seen whether that will be enough.
a. The goal of this legislation is to raise student achievement by improving instruction through the adoption of evaluations that provide specific feedback to educators, inform the provision of aligned professional development, and inform personnel decisions.
b. The New Jersey Supreme Court has found that a multitude of factors play a vital role in the quality of a child’s education, including effectiveness in teaching methods and evaluations. Changing the current evaluation system to focus on improved student outcomes, including objective measures of student growth, is critical to improving teacher effectiveness, raising student achievement, and meeting the objectives of the federal "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001."
Four categories of teachers: One change is simple but could become the new nomenclature in New Jersey. Teachers will be assigned to one of four categories each year: highly effective, effective, partially effective, and ineffective. Those tags will come through annual evaluations that look at both classroom practice and the extent that students progress in a particular class. Ruiz previously had just two categories, effective and ineffective, and now follows the tiers proposed by a task force convened by Christie last year.
Who’s in, who’s out: Ruiz's latest bill remains largely unchanged in that teachers would receive tenure after three years of “effective” or “highly effective” evaluations by a panel of teachers and administrators in each school. In one tweak, the three years would not start until after the first year of teaching, effectively requiring four years to receive tenure. The current law requires three years and a day. Under the bill, a teacher would lose tenure after one year of “ineffective” or “partially effective” evaluations and a second year that did not show improvement. The revocation of tenure would not be appealable except on grounds that proper procedure was not followed.
Mutual consent: Ruiz has left intact her provision that both teachers and principals must consent to the placement of a teacher in a school, preventing teachers from being shuffled around. But the new bill provides added powers for superintendents and school boards to sign off on the decisions. In addition, teachers who do not find placement would be put in a hiring pool for future vacancies, but could lose their jobs if unclaimed after a year.
New help for teachers: Ruiz’s latest bill adds language to reinforce an existing law that requires first-year teachers to have a year of a “researched-based mentoring program” under the guidance of “effective, experienced teachers.” The bill also adds a section that requires districts to specifically provide enhanced professional development to teachers found less than effective.
The controversial stuff: The whole push for tenure reform has gotten caught in the debate over how to measure whether a teacher's students have progressed, and how much those measurements should count in the evaluation. Christie has sought that student test scores, where applicable, count as much as 45 percent of the overall evaluation. Ruiz is more general in her provisions, listing a broad array of criteria, including that they be “partially based on multiple objective measures of student learning.“ Still, the district's evaluation methods would need approval of the state commissioner, and if not approved, a state evaluation model could be applied to a district.
All comes down to seniority: Ruiz’s new bill would lighten the heavy weight that seniority plays in making personnel decisions, especially layoffs. Under Ruiz’s bill, teachers would first be divided into their performance tiers, and then seniority would be factored in. In other words, the first layoffs would only be of “ineffective” teachers, the youngest first. Only once those are exhausted, could the layoffs move on to “partially effective teachers.” This section will be significant, since seniority has consistently been the sticking point in all negotiations with teacher unions.