Who We Are
Better Education for Kids (B4K) stands for putting the interests of New Jersey school kids first.
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. New Jersey recently passed a new teacher evaluation and tenure reform bill called TEACHNJ that takes important steps in the right direction, but too many of our rules and regulations are still in place to help the adults in the system, not the children.
As a nation, the US has gone from being the worldwide leader in public education to where we routinely trail other developed nations’ results on international tests. In NJ, where we have always valued the education of our kids, we spend an average of over $18,000 per student annually, the second highest in the nation. Yet we still have too many kids attending failing schools and too many public school graduates in need of remedial instruction.
At B4K, we believe this must change. For the future of our state and country, we must demand better for our kids.
Why Does the NJ Public School System Need Improvement?
As we might expect in a state that values public education by spending over 60% more per pupil than the national average, 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.
In addition, 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. And while it certainly true that many NJ schools do much better than the average – particularly those not subject to the difficult conditions in many poor communities – it is also true that fewer than half NJ non-minority students are proficient in fourth- and eighth-grade science, and less than 40% are proficient in 12th grade math. There is room for improvement here.
And sadly too many NJ schools do worse than NJ’s NAEP average. It is simply a fact that NJ 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 clearly 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?
1. TEACHNJ has helped to modernize the teaching profession
Because great teachers are so important in driving better student outcomes, New Jersey needs more of them. The new teacher evaluation system measures teacher performance in part by how well students are learning. It will help identify excellent teachers and the teaching practices that work. It also focuses on those that need help, drives personnel decisions, and ties professional development to systematic efforts to help teachers improve.
TEACHNJ's policies are backed by research that shows 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 of reform 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.
2. Align How We Hire and Promote with Demonstrated Teacher Excellence
TEACHNJ reforms tenure so that it is a significant professional achievement rather than an automatic and permanent reward for time served as it was in the past. Student and teacher performance, as reflected in evaluations, are significant factors in any decision to grant tenure. If, after being given additional help and a reasonable opportunity to improve, a teacher continues to be ineffective, that teacher will be replaced with an effective one.
However, there is more to do. 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 increased compensation for hard–to-teach subjects, elevated professional status, mentoring and peer development responsibilities, and incentives for placement into high-needs schools. Teaching should emulate the best in other modern professions where success is rewarded and the best personnel and practices are implemented broadly and systematically.
We must also 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.
3. 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 can 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.
4. 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.
Like teachers, under TEACHNJ principals must also be evaluated on their ability to drive student outcomes. Principals will have significant input into the teacher evaluation and feedback process and will be expected to hold teachers accountable for their performance. However, now that TEACHNJ is holding principals accountable, they must also be given the authority to assemble their team of educators, and teacher placement must be by mutual consent of both the principal and the teacher. Principals must be accountable for attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers and removing ineffective teachers.
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
TEACHNJ passed unanimously. Likewise, the policies B4K supports are supported by bipartisan leaders at both the national and state level. From President Obama, to Governor Christie, to Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-29), to Senator Joe Kyrillos (R-13), to ASM Albert Coutinho (D-29), these reform policies are being implemented or introduced across the country and in NJ.
Not surprisingly, New Jersey citizens support these reforms by wide margins. 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).
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.