Who We Are
Better Education for Kids (B4K) stands for putting the interests of New Jersey school kids first.
B4K believes that if we are to provide our children with the education our state constitution requires and prepare them for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, we must reward and support excellence in the teaching profession. Research has shown that no in-school factor – not class size, not school attended, not facilities has a greater impact on student performance than a great teacher, and we believe that every New Jersey student should have the opportunity to learn from a great teacher.
Our state constitution mandates a “thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State.” But the current school system is not being run for the efficient instruction of all of our children, particularly children in our poorer districts. Too many of our rules and regulations are in place to help the adults in the system, not the children.
At B4K, we believe this must change.
Why Does the New Jersey Public School System Need Improvement?
It is often said that New Jersey ranks among the top states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” However, simply measuring NJ against other states does not capture the reality of the 21st century global economy or the economic and educational advances of other countries. As a nation, our students are falling behind other nations on international assessments. New Jersey must improve its education system to preserve our economic preeminence in the world and provide for a better future for all our citizens.
Moreover, looking at the absolute performance of our students on the 2011 NAEP – rather than relative to other states – fewer than half of NJ students were deemed “proficient” across fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. Surely there is room to improve from these low numbers.
In addition, the promise of excellence in our schools is not fulfilled for all our students. New Jersey has one of the highest achievement gaps between wealthy and poor students in the nation. We have made progress in closing this gap, but more needs to be done.
Lastly, several studies of the NJ education system by nationally recognized education research institutions tell us the plain truth: our education system is not as good as we believe and there is significant room for improvement.
Please see the “NJ Education Facts” section of our website for the full NAEP results, data on the achievement gap and US performance on international tests, and independent rankings of the NJ school system.
Why Focus on Teachers?
A significant body of research confirms what we all know from our own experiences: teachers matter, and great teachers can and do change kids’ lives for the better. Not only do highly effective teachers produce significant and lasting improvement in students’ academic performance, but they also influence their life outcomes as well. Students assigned to effective teachers are more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, live in better neighborhoods, and save more for retirement; and they are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers. Please see here and here for discussion of these groundbreaking studies, as well as Nick Kristoff’s excellent op-ed on the subject in the New York Times here.
How can we get a great teacher in every classroom?
- Modernize the Teaching Profession by Implementing the New Evaluation System that Includes Student Learning
Because great teachers are so important in driving better student outcomes, New Jersey needs more of them. New Jersey's new teacher evaluation law, known as TEACHNJ, provides for a new system that measures teacher performance by multiple measures, including how well students are learning. TEACHNJ requires differentiated ratings for teachers thus helping to identify excellent teachers and the teaching practices that work. It also focuses on those that need help and ties professional development to systematic efforts to help teachers improve. If, after being given additional help and a reasonable opportunity to improve, a teacher continues to be ineffective, TEACHNJ requires that the ineffective teacher be replaced with an effective one.
Research supports TEACHNJ's policies. Studies show that the best way to evaluate teachers is to use multiple measures of teacher performance that include both objective measures of student progress (how students perform) as well as classroom observations of teacher practice (how teachers teach). Research also shows that the single best measure for predicting the future success of a teacher in improving student outcomes is the “value added” analysis – that is, how students perform on standardized tests.
Opponents argue that standardized tests should not be used as a factor to evaluate teachers, but the research says otherwise. These critics claim that the use of test data as a factor will make teachers “teach to the test.” But research shows that high value-added teachers do not simply “teach to the test” but rather improve students’ overall learning and attitudes. Please see here for a fuller discussion of the research cited above.
- Align How We Hire and Promote with Demonstrated Teacher Excellence
How we recruit, reward, and retain great teachers must all serve a single goal: the promotion of professional excellence. We have to retain and make the most of our best teachers by providing them with enhanced career and compensation opportunities such as differentiated pay for hard–to-teach subjects, elevated professional status, mentoring and peer development responsibilities, and incentives for placement into high-needs schools or districts. Teaching should emulate the best in other modern professions where success is rewarded and the best personnel and practices are implemented broadly and systematically.
TEACHNJ reforms tenure so that it is now a significant professional achievement rather than an automatic and permanent reward for time served, as it has been in the past. Student and teacher performance, as reflected in evaluations, are now significant factors in any decision to grant tenure, and ineffective teachers who do not improve can now lose tenure and be replaced with effective teachers.
However, TEACHNJ does not accomplish everything. We must work to end the common layoff policy known as “last in first out” or LIFO, which releases teachers based solely on how long they have taught and not how well. If layoffs are necessary, they must be based on teacher performance first and foremost, instead of relying solely on seniority as in the current system. Seniority and teacher experience are important, but they cannot be the only determinative factors in granting tenure or making layoffs.
- Attract the Best Teaching Candidates
We salute the many outstanding professionals we have teaching our children in our public schools. But having more great teachers means we have to ensure the most talented among us become teachers. By modernizing the teaching profession, we hope to make teaching a more attractive career choice for the best and brightest of our young college graduates entering the workforce, as the nations with the best educational systems already do.
Furthermore, we must expand opportunities for the recruitment of non-traditional teaching candidates such as outstanding college students (via programs like Teach For America), military veterans and mid-career professionals. Academic credentials should be valued insofar as they are shown to promote student achievement.
- Empower Principals and Hold Them Accountable for Excellence in their Schools
Along with our goal of a great teacher in every classroom, every school must also have a great principal. Having a leader and motivator to guide, support and empower teachers is essential to the success of a school. Excellence must be fostered from above.
Under TEACHNJ, as with teachers, principals will now be evaluated on their ability to build an effective teaching staff and drive student learning. However, now that principals are being held accountable, they must also have the authority to assemble their team of educators. Teacher placement must be by mutual consent of both the principal and the teacher, not simply based on a teacher's seniority as in the current system. Principals must have the auhtority to attract, develop and retain effective teachers and remove ineffective teachers, and must then be held accountable for the results.
We must also expand opportunities for recruitment of non-traditional principal candidates to include those with a proven record of success in non-academic careers. Again, credentials should be valued insofar as they are shown to promote student achievement.
Broad-based Support for Reform
The policies B4K supports are supported by bipartisan leaders at both the national and state level, including both President Obama and Governor Christie. TEACHNJ, with its new evaluation system and tenure reform policies, passed the state legisature unanimously. Every Democrat and Republican state legislator voted "yes" for these reforms.
Not surprisingly, New Jersey citizens support these reforms by wide margins, too. For example, a March 2012 Quinnipiac poll saw voters support tenure reform by 60% to 32% against. Likewise, in a March 2011 Rutgers poll, 60% of adults thought it would be “fair” to base teacher evaluations on student results on statewide tests as well as classroom observations, while 37% thought it “unfair.” (Please see the “NJ Education Facts” section of the website for a full accounting of five recent polls on education reform and the overwhelming public support for reform policies).
Teachers support these policies, too. A comprehensive survey of 10,000 teachers from around the country showed that when teachers are asked for their honest, professional opinions, overwhelming majorities agree that “engaged and effective” teachers are very important for student learning and that student achievement is the most important measure of their performance. They want better evaluation systems with more feedback and professional development.
Teachers also support tying personal decisions to teacher performance. Overwhelming majorities agree that tenure should be based on teacher performance, should not protect ineffective teachers, and should be periodically re-evaluated. In addition, when considering workforce reductions, large majorities support ending LIFO, which is the current system in NJ. (For more on this teacher survey, please see here).
The Current State of Education Reform in New Jersey
These are truly momentous times for education reform in NJ.
In addition to the passage of TEACHNJ, there are on-going, bipartisan efforts to improve our education system. Governor Christie’s Department of Education (NJDOE) is in the second year of its “Excellent Education for New Jersey” (EE4NJ) teacher evaluation pilot program in over 30 school districts across the state right now, which will expand to every school in the state this fall. A principal evaluation pilot is also taking place this year and will expand to all schools this fall.
Every school and district in NJ is now working on the implementation of TEACHNJ and the new evaluation system. We encourage parents to get informed about your own school's plans and help ensure that its key provisions are followed in both letter and spirit.
But the reform battle is not over. We must continue to enact reforms that put an effective teacher in every classroom. We must reward teaching excellence with enhanced career opportunities, including serving as mentors and coaches to other teachers, and then compensate them for their additional responsibilities. We must incentivize great teachers to teach in high-needs schools. We must end policies that base personnel placement decisions on how long a teacher has taught rather than how well. And we must give principals the authority to build their own teaching staffs by enacting mutual consent.
B4K is playing a constructive role in the rollout of EE4NJ. We have co-sponsored two NJ Spotlight roundtables on the teacher evaluation pilot program. We plan to do more of the same and to undertake other initiatives to help bring about additional reforms. Please stay tuned for further information about how B4K will be involved.
Working together, we can make the New Jersey public schools a model for a modern, effective and successful education system that prepares all of its students for a productive role in the global economy of the future. We want a better education for all New Jersey kids. Join us now. We cannot do it without you and without you it won’t be done.