Friday, March 23, 2012

Intended and Unintended Consequences of Tenure Reform

Those of you who have read my recent blog posts or Op-Ed piece in the Trenton Times know that I am a strong supporter of tenure reform, though I have trouble with the current legislation- known as TEACHNJ- being proposed by Senator Theresa Ruiz. I am hopeful that a more palatable version of the bill will emerge, and that we can begin the important task of improving the performance of teachers and holding them more accountable for the quality and extent of true learning that is taking place in our classrooms. As is clear from the poor levels of proficiency attained by too many of our children, especially those in the inner city, there is a real difference between teaching something and learning something. My support for tenure reform is founded on three important interests; interests that I hope will be addressed as a consequence of tenure reform.

The first interest is for improving the quality of supervision being provided for New Jersey teachers. The majority of today’s supervisor observations and evaluations are summative in nature, essentially a review and critique of a teacher’s performance on a given day. Some teachers will be observed a few times over the course of the year, but the majority of tenured teachers will be observed once. In my 18 years as a tenured teacher, I was observed 17 times; not one principal EVER sat in on one of my classes.

The new bill requires several evaluations, and I hope, I pray, that some districts will take it upon themselves to make a commitment to providing clinical supervision to its teachers, even to go so far as hire a supervisor whose ONLY job is to provide this essential type of support. Clinical supervision is typically collaborative in nature, formative for those teachers who are underperforming, and include a pre and post conference. The supervisor is in the class to observe a particular aspect of the lesson as determined in the pre-conference; they are in essence a second set of eyes in the classroom to help a teacher improve in some agreed upon area. Clinical supervision is the key to improved teacher performance. I challenge any educator to prove to me otherwise.

The second interest is for bringing performance pay into the remuneration system we use to pay teachers. The current system, essentially based on nothing more than seniority (years of service) and attained degrees, is an absolute farce. First of all, there is absolutely NO empirical evidence that attained degrees has any positive correlation with classroom performance. NONE. And paying teachers simply based on how long they have taught is tantamount to telling a teacher they can produce at a minimum level of competency without any penalty. There is absolutely no incentive built into the system to encourage teachers to reach for the “top tail” of the normal curve. To assume that all teachers are always striving to maximize their performance because they “love to teach” and because they “love their kids” is a joke. The system is unfair to our best teachers, and is in fact a disincentive for any high achieving college student that might consider teaching as their career.

The new tier evaluation system is an obvious precursor to a performance pay plan. With four tiers to assign teachers- from ineffective to highly effective- it will be easy to adapt this to a performance pay scheme where a portion of a teacher’s salary is determined by which tier they are placed.

My final interest is in scrapping the current HSPA, and this new legislation may produce change here as well. As was pointed out at the bill’s hearing, only 20% of the subject matter taught by teachers is included in the HSPA, which is really nothing more than a test of reading, writing, and math. The overwhelming majority of coursework required by our Core Content Curriculum Standards is not covered by the HSPA. Since quantitative metrics such as improvement on standardized test scores is one of the indices that will be used to evaluate teachers, it would seem to be necessary to design a graduation test that includes all seven subject areas in the CCCS, not just two. The fact that we have a graduation test that doesn’t include questions about law, government, economics, science, health, history, and the arts is a farce. How can we truly determine how well we are preparing our students to survive and prosper in our democratic/free market society if we don’t in some way test them? Personally, I think our CCCS are also a joke, loaded with “cumulative progress indicators” of things that we might want kids to learn, when they should be limited to only those things that high school students MUST learn. I promise that in an upcoming post I’ll give you some details on what a graduation test should look like.

So in conclusion I reiterate my support for tenure reform, it is much needed and long overdue. If tenure reform does pass, I am optimistic that it will have a cascade effect, leading to a host of other changes that I believe are critical if we are truly committed to improving teacher performance, attracting the best and brightest into the profession,  and preparing our children for the challenges of today’s society. I hope I’m right!

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