Move Ahead on Tenure Reform

February 10, 2012

 Tenure reform is coming to New Jersey’s public schools — in one form or another. The current system is, in the words of Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, “decrepit and it’s not working.”

The facts back him up. As of late last year, only 17 teachers had been fired for incompetence over the past 10 years, and only 1 percent of teachers in the Garden State received unsatisfactory ratings, Cerf said.

That is unacceptable And given the bipartisan nature of growing support for tenure, the New Jersey Education Association should get on board, lest it further alienate parents and the rest of the taxpaying public.

Last week, state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, introduced what, if approved, would be landmark teacher tenure legislation for New Jersey. It is about time, since about half the states have already enacted some form of tenure reform.

On Tuesday, at an editorial board meeting with New Jersey Press Media, Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said he agreed with most provisions of the bill. If enacted, it would end tenure as lifetime job security and require that teacher ratings play a significant role in determining who would be let go during layoffs.

The Ruiz bill includes several provisions that Cerf and Gov. Chris Christie already have promoted. Teachers would be classified in one of four categories after their annual evaluation: highly effective, effective, partially ineffective and ineffective.

Tenure would be revoked for teachers and assistant principals rated in the bottom two categories if they did not improve the following year. Teachers deemed fully or partially ineffective could face layoffs, even if they had seniority. School district needs would be the first criteria in determining whom to let go.

The bill also would give principals final say on hiring and transfer decisions.

Who, aside from the most reactionary teachers’ union leaders and members, could argue with those provisions?

What the Ruiz bill does not contain are any provisions for merit pay. Intimately connected with tenure issues, such reforms are desperately needed.

Whatever one decides to call it, the traditional “merit pay” or Cerf’s preferred term “differential pay,” such reform would go a long way toward rewarding what really matters: excellence in classroom instruction.

The commissioner has noted that teachers currently get pay raises only based on length of service and for additional education beyond a bachelor’s degree. But experience alone does not guarantee competence, and many studies over the years reveal that gaining a master’s or other advanced degree is not necessarily an indication of improved classroom performance.

Why reward teachers, by law, for two considerations that are not necessarily linked to student performance? Particularly when one of them, advanced degrees, have been demonstrably shown not to significantly improve either teaching or student performance? Those monies would be better spent on teachers who actually excel, regardless of what degrees they hold.

Cerf is right on the money in suggesting that school districts should be able to offer different pay to teachers for a variety of reasons.

If districts, for instance, want to pay more money for those who want to work in what is euphemistically referred to as a “high-challenge school” they should be able to do that. Why not pay the best-performing teachers more money? Why not pay more for teachers in subject areas in which they are in short supply? If a truly inspirational teacher is being recruited by another school, the district should be able to pay that teacher a retention bonus. These issues rightfully belong at the bargaining table. They should not be off limits by an antiquated law that has outlived its purpose and usefulness.

The current tenure law is about a century old and has become a behemoth it was never intended to become. What was designed to protect teachers from malicious, capricious or politically motivated terminations has transformed into almost iron-clad protection of even the most incompetent educators.

It is painfully obvious that current tenure law has gotten in the way of educating students, and enshrined mediocrity or worse as the status quo. When both Republicans and Democrats get behind this reform, when the Legislature and the governor are getting closer to deciding precisely what needs to be done and when half the country has already made sweeping changes, it is clear that the time has come to modernize tenure law in New Jersey.

Those opposed to such changes need either to accept reform or get out of the way.