Tag Archives: Chris Christie

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.

Where Does New Jersey Stand?

Besides bad drivers, bad air, too many highways, a bad governor and coastal flooding, what is there not to like about New Jersey?

Earlier this year, teachers in New York City were bracing themselves for two things that happened pretty much simultaneously. The first was the creation of a new evaluation system that uses a 20% value added metric on state exams. The second was the publication of how particular teachers’ students did on statewide exams. By most people’s judgments, we had lost on both counts. Our unions, both NYSUT and the UFT, seemed unwilling or unable to put up much of a fight. The reformers had their way with us and our students. We are already being introduced to the Danielson rubric and many of us have an idea of the type of statewide exam on which we are going to be judged. But other parts of the evaluation agreement have yet to be worked out.

And therein might be a glimmer of hope. By the time the negotiations and court cases over these particulars are resolved, our country and state might be headed in a different educational direction. The events of earlier this year were an outgrowth of a major effort by education reformers that had been gathering steam for over a decade. Their momentum crashed right over New York’s schools and changed our landscape for the worst. However, there might be reason to believe that the NY evaluation fiasco was the high tide of reform never to be replicated again here or elsewhere. To be sure, there were other major reformer victories, most notably the implosion of Philadelphia’s public school district. Yet, while the reformers were notching these victories, there were also signs that their influence was on the wane. The times seemed to be a-changin’ in that Spring and Summer of 2012, if only very incrementally.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel canceled the final 4% salary increase in the CTU’s contract, added to the school day without compensating teachers and promised to ratchet up the invasion of charters and testing. For his overreach, Emanuel now has a teacher strike on his hands. The results of this strike will go a long way in determining if the times are a-changin’ or not.

And, very quietly, a strange tenure reform law was passed in New Jersey. It did not get much national press, nobody spoke about it in detail (not even Chris Christie himself at the Republican National Convention) but it was a curious little law in a curious little state.

Christie become New Jersey’s governor right when the Tea Party “movement” was getting into full swing. He swept into office on a high tide of feelings of goodwill for conservative candidates nationwide. In a very short time, Christie has earned the reputation as one of the Republican party’s shining stars. He was even on the shortlist to be Mitt Romney’s running mate.

Part of his success has come from declaring war on many of the familiar bugaboos of the Republican Party, including public sector labor unions. It was clear from the day he assumed office that he was in the educational reformer camp, a group that includes many conservatives and so-called liberals.

Teachers particularly seemed to stick in his craw. He had disparaged teachers and their unions on many occasions, called for the total elimination of tenure and vowed to support charters and vouchers as an alternative to a school system he predictably labeled as “failing”. His sights, much like the sights of other governors like Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal and Andrew Cuomo, seemed to be squarely set on public school teachers. If a leader like Chris Christie, someone who was as popular and powerful as any governor in the union, wanted to drastically reform teaching in New Jersey, there would be very little hope anyone can stop him.

The only group that had the power to stand in his way was the New Jersey Education Association, New Jersey’s statewide teacher union. If Christie wanted to reform teaching in the state, he would have to reckon with them. Christie floated the familiar education reform schemes: merit pay, elimination of due process and, most drastically, an end to collective bargaining. Would the NJEA roll over and die on these issues like so many other teacher unions? One thing they had going for them was the fact that many NJ school districts are rated top notch nationwide. There seemed to be very little “dead wood” on the teaching staffs in NJ and, when they were found, they mysteriously were concentrated in places like Newark and Camden. I wonder why?

After two years of attacking teachers and their unions, and after many months of contentious negotiations where Christie’s camp was bolstered by the likes of DFER, the deal that he struck with the NJEA was the following:

1) Teachers needed 4 years of effective ratings to get tenure

and

2) Teachers who already have tenure can face termination proceedings if given two ineffective ratings in a row.

Furthermore, the termination proceedings in NJ were supposedly streamlined so that hearings are less expensive and faster. In NYC, this has meant the hiring of a new crop of arbitrators who seem hell-bent on firing everyone. What this means for NJ only time will tell. The NJEA was also able to preserve “last in, first out” in the case of teacher layoffs.

There was something about this law that seemed different from many of the other tenure reform laws passed around the country. In short, it did not seem like a wholesale victory for the reformers. In fact, it did not seem as if Chris Christie got anything he wanted out of this deal at all. Where was the merit pay? The destruction of tenure? The elimination of collective bargaining? Chris Christie got nothing out of this deal.

Maybe this is why he did not race to sign the bill into law. After all, Romney was still choosing his running mate at this time and Christie was a serious contender. He did not want to be associated with such a union-friendly bill at such an important time in his political career. Magically, after Romney chose Paul Ryan, Christie signed the bill into law at a big ceremony with NJEA and DFER officials. They all hugged and shook hands and made speeches about the spirit of collaboration.

But teachers in New Jersey were asking about what had just happened. They saw what transpired right over the border in Philadelphia and New York. Despite all of that, could this be? Was this actually a victory for the teachers’ union? Cami Anderson, the reformers’ darling superintendent of Newark’s schools, gave us a clue when her reaction to the law was something along the lines of “what, we still have last in, first out?” She was not applauding it, making it a strange education law indeed.

To be sure, this was just one fight of many to come. There promises to be efforts to tie teacher evaluations to standardized exams, to institute merit pay and to dot the Garden State with charters. The NJEA will have to keep fighting, and they will hopefully do just that.

Maybe New Jersey, with its popular reformer governor and decidedly un-reformer tenure law, was the hinge. Maybe on the heels of the NY nightmare and the Philadelphia implosion, New Jersey was the rock on the shore that did not get washed away. Perhaps, just perhaps, that was the sign that the reformers were losing steam. A little more than a month after this law was signed, Chicago’s teachers went out on strike.

Maybe the NJEA and the brave Chicago teachers are pointing the way for those of us in New York. The UFT has yet to work out a deal with the city regarding the student assessment portion of the new evaluations. There also has yet to be a test case in the courts over using standardized exams and value added metrics to rate teachers. When these things do happen, maybe the environment will be more conducive to teachers and more respectful of our profession. It is up to us and our union leadership to hold their ground and act on the examples put forth by the NJEA and the CTU.

It is time to push back. All the union activists, opt-out leaders, public education advocates, anyone with a desire to save the institution of public schooling, maybe now is the time for us to go on the offensive, or at least play a stronger defense.

And maybe one day we can look back on it and say it started with a little law in the state of New Jersey.