NJEA: Meaningful Reform is More Than Evaluation, Tenure.

November 6, 2011

If the New Jersey Education Association’s position on education reform was as obstinate as The Star-Ledger believes, our union would deserve the criticism it has received.

But the truth is, NJEA supports real education reform, including changes to tenure and evaluation that will help districts identify which teachers are performing at a high level and make it easier to remove those who do not do their jobs.

So as legislators, educators, parents and others prepare to debate education reform, let’s stipulate one thing: No one wants to keep ineffective teachers in New Jersey’s public schools, because students come first. The debate then gets much more focused and much more productive: How can we achieve that shared objective?

NJEA advocates a process that makes it harder for teachers to earn tenure, and easier for districts to remove tenured teachers who do not measure up. Under the current system, teachers earn tenure when they return for a fourth year of employment in a district. During the first three years, a district is required to evaluate each new teacher three times a year. At any time during those three years, if a district believes a teacher is ineffective or simply not a good fit for the district, that teacher can be dismissed, with very little recourse except for very limited legal grounds.

NJEA proposes adding a residency year to the process, giving districts more time to evaluate new teachers before granting tenure. During this longer probationary period, we propose to strengthen the support and evaluation systems so that new teachers have the best opportunity to succeed, and districts have both the time and the reliable information they need to make smart decisions about building their teaching staffs.

Most people are more concerned about what happens once teachers earn tenure. The current system, which involves hearings in the courts, is too expensive and too time-consuming. NJEA proposes putting tenure cases before arbitrators, whose judgment would be final. Cases would be heard quickly and at much lower cost. It’s a system that has worked elsewhere and can work in New Jersey.

The key to an effective tenure system, however, is a strong evaluation system. If districts are going to be more aggressive about removing ineffective tenured teachers, they need a reliable way of determining who those teachers are. The current system, which requires one annual classroom observation of each tenured teacher, is not rigorous enough.

NJEA proposes doubling the number of classroom observations for tenured teachers to two per year, along with a formal annual evaluation. More important, we propose improving the quality of evaluations. And that is where NJEA and the educators we represent may part company with some of the corporate reform models.

Far too often, those who are not in the classroom assume that standardized test scores and student achievement are synonymous. They are not. Failure to recognize that leads to simplistic schemes to test students more often and hold teachers solely responsible for the scores their students achieve. But all of the reputable research shows that students’ standardized test scores are a very poor indicator of an individual teacher’s effectiveness.

Overreliance on standardized test scores actually lowers the quality of education. Just look at the failed experiment of No Child Left Behind. A decade after its introduction, its focus on testing, testing and more testing has done nothing to help student learning. Parents and educators alike are frustrated by the time lost — many would say wasted — on test preparation, at the expense of real learning. But proposals coming from the Christie administration would require more testing, more often, in more subjects for more students — all in the name of teacher accountability. It will not work.

A good evaluation system may take standardized test scores into account, but will put far more weight on other measures of student achievement and teacher effectiveness. Evaluators ought to look at the work that students are doing. They ought to observe teachers at work and have discussions about professional practice. They ought to consider the challenges that educators face — especially those who choose to teach in the most difficult settings — and weigh what the teacher has done to overcome those obstacles. They ought to see what a teacher is doing to learn and grow professionally. And when areas of concern are identified, they ought to work with teachers to address those issues immediately.

Good evaluation systems that provide useful data, without relying too heavily on standardized testing, exist. NJEA supports the use of those systems.

If a tenured teacher is judged ineffective under a good evaluation system and does not improve in a reasonable period of time, a district should act to remove that person. Unless the teacher can demonstrate to an arbitrator that the evaluation is faulty, or that the move is motivated by personality conflicts, politics or other improper reasons, he or she should lose the job.

Our proposal gives districts a clear and reasonable way to remove ineffective teachers, but it also protects teachers and taxpayers from the pernicious influence of politics and patronage in the classroom — the very reason that New Jersey instituted tenure a century ago. It’s smart reform, and it has the endorsement of educators.

Meaningful education reform must deal with much more than evaluation and tenure. NJEA’s plan does, as legislators and the public will see. We take a backseat to no one in our commitment to making sure New Jersey has a great teacher in every classroom.

Barbara Keshishian is president of the 195,000-member New Jersey Education Association.