The acting education commissioner unveiled a plan on Wednesday afternoon that would revamp tenure for teachers, requiring them to meet a set of performance standards.
In a speech at the Lewis Library at Princeton University, Christopher Cerf called for “demonstrated student learning” to be part of the tenure process, along with yearly evaluations and a plan to strip tenure from teachers who are not meeting requirements.
Under the proposal, teachers rated effective or highly effective for three consecutive years would be granted tenure. Teachers would lose tenure if they failed to meet requirements for two consecutive years.
Tenure is a set of legal protections that can be offered to teachers after three years and one day of service, guaranteeing educators a fourth year in their district but essentially offering them due process protections going forward. Under the current system, once a teacher achieves tenure, a district can't simply dismiss an educator like an "at-will" employee; tenure charges must be established, leading to an often costly and time-consuming process.
The proposal is expected to go to the state Legislature in March.
“The effectiveness of the teacher in front of the class is the best way to determine how children learn,” Cerf said. “This alone is more important than the class size, or books we choose.”
Step one toward changing the system would be implementing evaluations, which would include annual updates that are completely based on student learning, including test scores and other measurements.
Progress would be measured primarily on how much growth is seen in learning, regardless of the starting point.
The methodology of effective teaching is something to be awarded, Cerf said. Merely withstanding the test of time shouldn’t necessarily guarantee you lifetime job security, he said.
Cerf said the proposed legislation “does everything in its power to retain those achieving success and get rid of those who aren’t,” and that reforms are not “trying to bash teachers for our education's failure.”
Instead, Cerf said that the proposal is very “pro-teacher,” with excellence in the classroom being emphasized.
The proposal also calls for an end to seniority in layoff decisions. Under current law, districts making staff cuts are required to lay off the most junior educators.
“Our proposal would be to fix this, and these decisions would be made on demonstrated effectiveness,” Cerf said.
Compensation also could be affected, he said, with raises being tied to student learning.
He said re-evaluating how teachers achieve tenure should be a bipartisan issue.
“Are we politically too timid to give our children the best chance in life through an effective public school education?” he asked.
The proposal is part of to overhaul education in New Jersey. The governor also has moved to cap school administrator salaries (generally at a rate no higher than his own salary); to open more charter schools, which he heralds as a far better method for fixing failing schools than increasing their funding; and to increase school choice.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver, in a statement released following Cerf's announcement, said she's skeptical of the Christie administration's plans. She said legislators will review the plan, but "will do so knowing that solving the problems facing our poorest children in failing in urban schools is more complicated than throwing around slogans and blaming teacher job protections."
She criticized the Christie administration for cuts to programs affecting New Jersey's urban and poor students.
“The Assembly is prepared to work cooperatively to advance responsible education reforms, but is not ready to cast blame on teachers who in many of these failing schools are quite simply real-life heroes,” she said.
Response From the Teachers Union
Barbara Keshishian—president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union—released a statement saying that "if the governor’s goal is to cultivate anxiety in the heart of every parent and every teacher in New Jersey, he has done that today.
"He just doesn’t understand teaching, the tenure process or what constitutes a sound evaluation process," she said in the statement.
Keshishian called the proposal an "unproven step in the wrong direction" and said evaluating teachers based on test scores is bad policy. She said too much of what impacts student performance occurs outside of the classroom. She also said connecting merit pay to student test scores will destroy morale and the spirit of collaboration seen in the best schools.
"Parents should be alarmed and dismayed at this proposal," she said. "Why will teachers want to work with the most challenging students, whose test scores are the hardest to raise?"
Keshishian criticized the proposal for eliminating the current processes for dismissing teachers. The NJEA has separately proposed teacher dismissals be handled through arbitration hearings, rather than through courts — which it says would save taxpayer money while still ensuring fairness in dismissals. It points to a system it says has worked successfully in Massachusetts for 18 years. The NJEA has also put forward its own plans for tenure reforms.
“No one wants to create 125,000 new patronage jobs in New Jersey, but that’s the risk we run under the governor’s proposal," she said. "What makes him think teachers will do their best work in a climate of fear and uncertainty?"