N.J. Senate to hold hearings on 'offensive' NJEA videos

May 7, 2018

The state Senate announced Monday it will hold hearings to investigate hidden-camera videos that appear to show local leaders of New Jersey's top teachers union talking about protecting teachers accused of abusing students.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the state's top lawmaker, told NJ Advance Media on Monday morning he asked the chairs of the Senate education and labor committees to convene a joint hearing.

The hearings were announced an hour later, but the committee chairs said they have not yet set any dates. 

"It is absolutely unacceptable," Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said about the videos in a phone interview. "It's offensive to listen to the way the leadership -- I'm not talking about the state leadership, I'm talking about the local leadership -- handled that."

Sweeney added that if the leaders have "devised a way to get around reporting properly incidents in schools where kids have been physically assaulted, it's a problem."

"It's a real problem," he said. "And I think it's enough of issue when you have local leadership bragging about how they get around things, and how they can fix things, that it needs to be reviewed to make sure it stops." 

Editorial: NJEA footage demands scrutiny

The videos were released by Project Veritas, a controversial conservative nonprofit run by James O'Keefe, a New Jersey native and Rutgers University graduate.

The group goes undercover to record liberal organizations and individuals in an effort to expose bias. But critics say the group uses deceptive methods and note their videos are heavily edited. 

The most recent videos feature snippets of interviews with the local teachers union presidents in Hamilton (Mercer County) and Union City. The local unions are branches of the New Jersey Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state.

David Perry, head of the Hamilton Education Association, is shown saying his own job sometimes involves defending "the worst people." 

In another video, Kathleen Valencia, head of the Union City Education Association, calls students "dirtbags" and mentions how a teacher who had sex with a teenage girl will not be fired because no charged were filed. 

Perry and Valencia also discuss how the union hypothetically would help teachers who physically abused or threatened students. 

Both union officials have been suspended. And the NJEA said in a recent statement that it is commissioning "an independent review of the practices of our local affiliates and staff."

The union said it "does not, in any instance, condone the abuse or mistreatment of children or the failure to properly report allegations of abuse."

The NJEA also criticized Project Veritas as "a political organization with a long history of releasing deceptively edited videos that later prove to have been dishonest and misleading."

Sweeney dismissed that, saying "they can attack the videos and who did the videos all they want."

"But those words were real, those actions were real, and they need to be dealt with," he told NJ Advance Media. "And the NJEA doing their own independent investigation is the fox watching the henhouse."

In response to Sweeney's comments, Steve Baker, a spokesman for the NJEA, said the union's review is to "ensure that every staff member and local affiliate leader understands and clearly communicates the responsibility of all school employees to report any suspected abuse of children."

Baker added that the union "welcomes the opportunity to discuss these important issues further with legislators in order to ensure that all public education advocates are working together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of New Jersey's students."

Sweeney and NJEA have bad blood. The union spent millions to try to unseat the Senate president in last year's election. In all, the race cost $18.7 million, making it the most expensive legislative campaign in American history.

But Sweeney rejected that calling for a hearing is an act of revenge.

"Revenge? There's no revenge. Come on," he said

"They attacked who did the video," Sweeney added. "The person who did the video doesn't have the greatest reputation. We all agree. But that video was real. They know it's real, and that's why they suspended those members."

"This is me doing my job as a legislative leader," he continued. "We hold hearings on things when we see things that are troubled."

Sweeney said a hearing is needed especially in the wake of Gov. Phil Murphy signing a law giving New Jersey's school administrators sweeping new powers to warn other districts about teachers accused of sexual abuse.

The law was enacted months after  NJ Advance Media published an extensive investigation into the issue. 

Radio station New Jersey 101.5-FM was the first to report that Sweeney wanted a hearing, citing a source close to the lawmaker

Evaluating New Jersey's Teachers: A Mosaic of Practices and Processes

April 18, 2011

At one school in Bergen County, the teacher evaluation is left entirely to the principal, using a hybrid system for grading his 35 staffers, a steady stream of classroom observations and a lot of weekends reading lesson plans.

At a school in Somerset County, a principal’s classroom observations are important, but so are his daily walks through the building.

As Gov. Chris Christie looks to revamp how New Jersey’s public schools evaluate their teachers, this is just part of the varied quilt of evaluation practices that he’ll be starting with.

For good or ill, such variety has long been a hallmark of New Jersey’s — if not the nation’s — practices for judging their teachers. There are few standards statewide as to how districts should grade their own, but that allows each to set guidelines to meet its individual needs.

Now Christie wants to put those standards into law, requiring schools to rate their teachers in one of four categories, from “highly effective” to “ineffective.”

Half of the evaluation would be through tools approved by the state, including two classroom observations a year for everyone, a change from current law. The other half will be based on student achievement, including how students do on state tests.

Whether and when his proposals become law remains uncertain, with the draft bills only presented last week, but snapshots from two traditional districts provide a glimpse as to the changes and challenges they would pose in the hallways and classrooms where the principals and teachers do their jobs.

25 Lesson Plans a Week For Emil Carafa, 20 years as a principal in Lodi, now at the Washington Elementary School, it can be a lonely job.

He is the sole administrator in the building of 430 students, and while he likes it best when he’s moving about the school, he wears many hats, including guidance counselor and even secretary some days. “If the secretary is out, I never leave the office,” he said.

But of course, his primary job is educational leader to the 35 instructional staff, all of whom he is solely responsible for managing and overseeing. And that means trying every tool at his disposal, from the informal conversations in the hallways to the state-required classroom observations, three for untenured teachers and one for tenured.

Last year he conducted 41 observations in all, as well as pre- and post-meetings with each teacher to discuss the planning of the lesson and reflect on the outcome.

“You’re looking for the lesson to be moving along, the children staying on task,” he said. “Staying within the time, using differentiated instruction in both the content and context, when you have all the pieces of the puzzle together and the children are engaged, to me, that’s proficient.”

Yet that is just one piece of the annual evaluation, with frequent look at grades and student work within the class. Every test given by a teacher is first reviewed by Carafa, and every one of their lesson plans is reviewed weekly, leaving Carafa a pile of 25 to read on most weekends.

The state test scores matter, but so does the data the district collects through its own assessments. Carafa said they all usually follow what he knows about a teacher, anyway. “I’m not often surprised,” he said. “Sometimes, you are surprised by a kid doing better or worse on the tests, but not the teachers.”

In his 10 years, Carafa estimates, 85 percent of his teachers have gotten grades for “proficient” and “satisfactory,” and a handful received the lower “needs improvement” and unsatisfactory.”

Among the latter, one teacher saw her salary raise withheld, the one disciplinary step a district can take short of tenure charges. The teacher later resigned.

A 10K Walk a Day Tom Barclay was principal of the Orchard Hill Elementary School in Montgomery Township for six years, and now in his first year as assistant superintendent in the district, he said he misses the exercise.

“On a daily basis, I’d walk two times through the building, 6.3 miles,” he said. “I measured it with a pedometer.”

And it proved a hallmark of his management style, seeing the teachers at work early and often so that there were few surprises later in the year.

“You get the lay of the land, talk to the kids and the parents,” he said. “In many ways it is more helpful than waiting for the formal visit two or three times a year.”

“If you are waiting for the evaluation,” he said at another point, “it is probably too late.”

Still there is a formal evaluation, including the observation tool devised by Princeton-based education consultant Charlotte Danielson, which sets up dozens of criteria of a classroom visit and measures teachers along each one. In Montgomery, the vice principal and curriculum directors also conducted the observations to provide different sets of eyes.

Yet Barclay said they also work with each teacher separately in creating what is a “formative project,” where a teacher sets the goals for a specific challenge or task to work on during the year — be it around teaching a specific form of writing or building stronger classroom management strategy.

The district is now starting to devise an even more collaborative model that would create what is called a “professional learning community,” in which teachers work closely with one another and could even be part of the evaluation team, Barclay said.

The tricky part is using state assessments, though, since Orchard Hill is preschool to second grade, with none of the students taking the state tests that start in third grade. That didn’t leave them without ways to measure progress, however, but they were their own .

“I consider it a bit of blessing, actually,” Barclay said. “But we did need to build our own assessments and data.”

Through all that, the principal can get a good measure on a teacher and the ways he or she can improve, Barclay said. But he also likes to tell his own personal story, about how as a 14-year elementary school teacher, he really came into his own when he was assigned next door to another veteran teacher who was particularly talented in teaching writing.

“It changed everything I did,” he said. “I even become the language arts supervisor because of that woman.”