At First Anniversary, NJ's Teacher-Tenure Law Faces Biggest Tests

August 9, 2013

The state senator who wrote and shepherded through New Jersey’s new teacher tenure law remembers well the day a year ago when it was signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie including that it was an August scorcher.

With the law’s first anniversary this week, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) said she also knows now that it remains an unfinished job.

“New Jersey should be very proud of what it accomplished,” Ruiz said yesterday. “But we can’t stop there. It is one small step, and there are other things we need to talk about, so many other things that are needed to ensure a child’s academic success.”

Ruiz’s Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey Act (TEACHNJ) has transformed teacher evaluation, instituting new requirements on how and when teachers are assessed and laying out a system of grades that can grant them tenure or potentially remove them.

The law goes into full effect with the start of the school year next month. At that point, every district in the state is required to have in place a teacher evaluation system that will grade educators on a scale from “ineffective to “highly effective.”

In the meantime, nearly 30 cases have already been decided by the arbitration system set up by the law, the latest coming down this week against a Cumberland County vocational high school teacher accused of shoving a student.

Ruiz said yesterday that she continues to hear from constituents and others about TEACHNJ as it starts to take hold in the state.

She also has been caught up in some of the minutia, including discussions in the spring about how heavily test scores would be weighted in the evaluation process, by far the most contentious aspect of the law.

Other lawmakers have asked that she extend the deadlines for the evaluation system, something she has thus far refused to do.

Since the law’s signing in a Middlesex school, Ruiz has realized that TEACHNJ is a work in progress. There will be a great deal to learn in the coming months as districts begin to roll out their evaluation systems, she said.

“Legislation is written for the moment,” Ruiz said yesterday. “We just opened up a 100-year-old law and statute and changed how things were done. But we know there is always room for improvement.”

When asked if she had second thoughts about any of the language of the law or its requirements, she said not at this point.

There have been debates about how certain pieces of the legislation are to be interpreted, including one line that says test scores would not be a “predominant” factor in judging teachers. But Ruiz said the law was never meant to prescribe just one way for all districts all the time.

“I never wanted to get into the weeds of it,” she said. “What we use today [in judging teachers] is not necessarily what we will use in five, 10, 15 years, and I always felt it should be a dynamic process. But did we also want protections? Yes, and I think there are protections.”

One thing the senator said she is not giving up on is finding state funding to help districts implement the law, which explicitly calls for state resources. Nonetheless, Christie and the Legislature did not include any additional funding in this year’s budget. Ruiz said maybe some help could be provided through a grant program or on a case-by-case basis.

“I will always push for opportunities to find resources for districts,” she said.

Ruiz also said there is likely to be further legislation in the coming year about other important aspects of teacher quality, including education and preparation.

“We are really early in that,” she said. “There are a lot of moving pieces, and we want to make sure we do it properly.”

She said one thing that the tenure law taught her was the value of bringing various parties together to reach consensus, even if it takes a few years.

“It certainly didn’t start like that at the beginning, not at all,” she said of the process. “But I learned you need to bring everyone to the table.”