Does New Jersey Stand?

Yesterday, I wrote about how the teacher evaluation law in New Jersey was a victory for the union and a sign of education reform losing steam across the country. While I still stand behind these assertions, it is obvious I painted too rosy of a picture of the new evaluation law. I communicate from time to time with a few NJ teachers and asked them for their feedback, and they all had some very interesting things to say.

From a NJ teacher’s perspective, this tenure law certainly is a frightening prospect. From a NYC’s teacher’s perspective, this tenure law is not as bad as many of the things that have happened to us over the past few years. I think this accounts for the tone of my article yesterday. If the governor of my state pushed to end collective bargaining, get rid of due process and institute merit pay the way Chris Christie did, he would have had our union holding his hand every step of the way. I was shocked by the fact that, by the end of the process, Christie got very little of what he wanted. This certainly is a foreign concept to us New Yorkers who are used to being beaten like piñatas with the club of value added, high stakes testing and charter school co-locations.

Nonetheless, NJ’s tenure law is wrought with danger. There is plenty of room for abuse by administrators. In some respects, the new law resembles some of the things going on in NYC. Before we discuss that, let us delve into the things that are, or have the potential to be, positive.

To start off, new teachers will have to work under a mentor for one of their first four years. I am a huge fan of mentoring new teachers, mostly because a mentor helped mold me into the teacher I am today. Now, to be sure, my mentor was a true veteran hired by the principal to do nothing but mentor the younger history teachers. Her only purpose in that building was to make us better and give us the keys to honing the teacher’s craft. I think proper mentoring can make or break a teacher’s career. Instituting a mentoring policy for teachers would dramatically improve the abysmal teacher retention rates, in my opinion.

The devil is in the details, however. For New Jersey’s young teachers, who will choose these mentors? How much experience will they have? Are they going to be required to give actual guidance, or merely get paid to be in the room so the district can say that a teacher was “mentored”? I suppose time will tell. Mentoring is a wonderful idea if it comes from a genuine concern to train the next generation of teachers and not merely find excuses to get rid of them before they get tenure.

Another potentially positive thing about the tenure law is that teachers will not be evaluated, even in part, by standardized test scores. Much of this has to do with the fact that NJ did not get approved for Race to the Top, unlike us lucky souls in New York. Leaving testing out of the teacher, not to mention the student, evaluation process is a good thing. It was something Chris Christie pushed for, no doubt with the prodding of DFER. The fact that it does not appear in the tenure law is a minor victory for the NJEA.

Yet, how teachers both young and old do get evaluated was one of the big questions surrounding the crafting of the law. Here is a good explanation of what the law finally said:

In each school, a School Improvement Panel will be created that will consist of a principal or his or her designee, an assistant or vice principal, and a teacher. The teacher will be a “person with a demonstrated record of success in the classroom,” chosen in consultation with the union.

The panel will be responsible for overseeing the mentoring of new teachers and will conduct the evaluations of all teachers. One interesting part is that the teacher member will not be allowed to be part of those evaluations, unless agreed to by the union.

Therefore, teachers have a hand in the evaluation process, although they will not be allowed to evaluate teachers themselves. The teacher on the panel must be approved by the union. In schools where there is a proper balance of power between administrators and union leaders, this might work out well. In schools where the union leaders are nothing more than rubber stamps for the administration, these panels have the potential to be terror squads. What is interesting, however, is that teachers have any hand at all in teacher evaluations. This is a different breed of animal from all of the other evaluation laws passed in the age of education reform, where testing and administrators are co-kings.

That is not all:

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s dominant teachers union, wanted that provision, so not to throw their members into the difficult situation of teachers evaluating teachers. The American Federation of Teachers, the smaller union but representing Newark teachers, has asked that teachers be included.

I am with the AFT on this one. I think allowing teachers to evaluate other teachers is a good idea. I understand that the NJEA wants to avoid conflicts between its members, but it would be a step towards increased autonomy and professionalism to allow teachers a hand in evaluating teachers. All the same, the fact that teachers have any part in the evaluation process whatsoever has good potential, as long as the teacher is not a shill for the administration.

Now that the good aspects of the law are out of the way, we can look at the negative parts of the law, which are many. First, the evaluations of the board are final. There is no way a teacher can appeal an evaluation. This sounds eerily similar to what happens in New York City. The principal’s evaluation is pretty much the end, unless you want to spend the money to sue in a real court of law. The only things that a teacher can contest are the facts of the observation report or if the principal violated the contract in some way. The same rule applies to evaluations in NJ. A teacher can contest facts of an evaluation, but the evaluation itself is final. So, again, it comes down to who is on that panel and how it reflects the politics of the particular school.

Will the teacher on the evaluation panel be allowed to act as a witness for the teacher who is appealing?

Probably the worst part of the law was something I touched upon yesterday: two “inefficient” ratings in a row and a tenured teacher can be brought up on incompetency charges where they are in danger of losing their license. Chris Christie got what he wanted here. He had been complaining about how few NJ teachers were ever fired for incompetence. With evaluations being final, principals can harass teachers they do not want out of the system. This is despite the fact that teachers actually can appeal a bad evaluation if they prove it is the result of discrimination or nepotism. Any teacher from any system will tell you it is easy for a principal to harass a teacher without leaving a paper trail, making it tough to prove in front of an independent third party. In the end, what this amounts to is a serious weakening of tenure.

The picture becomes even more grim when the new arbitration process is taken into account. This is the process teachers will go through when appealing an evaluation:

Eight arbitrators will be picked by the NJEA; three, by the AFT; nine, by the New Jersey School Boards Association; and five, by the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. Only if a vacancy goes unfilled will the state commissioner appoint an arbitrator….

The rules of dispute are critically important. The law explicitly allows the arbitrator only to decide if proper procedures were followed, and not the merits of the teacher evaluation itself. (emphasis mine)

Again, not only are evaluations final, but the parts of evaluations that can be contested by a teacher are subject to a similar process that NYC teachers go through during 3020a hearings. As we have seen on so many occasions, no matter who picks these arbitrators, the school district is signing their checks and they seem all too cognizant of that fact. There is very little prospect of a NJ teacher successfully contesting any part of their evaluations, leaving them totally at the mercy of their school’s panels which are dominated by administrators.

In short, NJ’s new teacher evaluation law weakens tenure. If I was a NJ teacher, I certainly would not be happy. However, as a NYC teacher, I am struck by what is not in the law and how the governor came away with so little of what he wanted. This is why my post yesterday was so upbeat. It is like someone living in North Korea looking over the border to China and thinking the people there are so much more free. While that might be the case, there is no freedom in any absolute sense. Same thing with this law. Teachers in neither NJ nor NY are free in an absolute sense, although the reformers have made greater headway on this side of the Hudson.

I wish the teachers of New Jersey well. One can only hope that this is where your fiasco ends and that your union will hold the line in the future. As for us in NYC, our union has no line.

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2 responses to “Does New Jersey Stand?

  1. Yes, it appears to be a thousand times worse than existing law. It fails to address the problem in education, which is with unaccountable principals. Now they get more power than ever, with the added power of literally forcing a teacher out so he or she can NEVER teach anywhere in the United States ever again if that license is revoked for something as vague as “incompetence.” BTW, I don’t trust other teachers to “evaluate” them anymore than I do principals given how much cronyism goes on in public ed.

    • Teachers mentoring can be somewhat of a joke as well. When you have an industry where women and men work so closely together without a watchful eye, wether a teacher is getting renewed or not can be based solely on their appearance and who they impressed and who they didn’t . Someone’s job status should be solely based on their performance. ie a sales person who fails to sell the product should not be kept because their a nice guy or she wears really short skirts.

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