Friday, March 9, 2012

More on the Implications of Senator Ruiz's Bill

Senator Ruiz’s TEACHNJ bill is just the kind of legislation we need in New Jersey. Even though there is a lot in the bill I take issue with, it’s the kind of legislation that raises so many tangential issues and is so provocative and progressive that it may stimulate people to think and motivate people to act on behalf of education reform, but more importantly on behalf of our children.

In my previous blog I addressed the overall issues of teacher accountability and effectiveness, taking the position that the bill is heavily skewed towards accountability; the amount of attention and resources the bill dedicates to teacher effectiveness could lead many to conclude it was nothing more than a cynical effort to placate certain stakeholders. Or maybe the Senator just didn’t bother consulting specialists in the field that could have provided her with a more extensive menu of choices for improving teacher effectiveness.  The bill utilizes operant conditioning based on negative reinforcement: to avoid losing your tenure or being transferred you better get off your ass and improve your effectiveness. The threat of losing tenure or being transferred is supposed to stimulate or strengthen positive behavior, in this case more effective teaching. I’m not saying this won’t work, but it falls far short of an enlightened “action plan.”

There were many points made at the hearing that you should be aware of, and several implications of this bill that are absolutely deserving of our time and interest.

There is no denying that the current system is broken. As Newark Mayor Corey Booker pointed out, “95% of our teachers are being graded as proficient, but only 40% of students receive a similar grade.” Mayor Booker’s observation makes clear that the oft cited performance gap between the cities and suburbs tells only half the story. Not only are our suburban schools outperforming our inner city schools, but it appears that teachers in the inner city are receiving satisfactory evaluation grades in spite of their students’ poor performance. Obviously there are other factors working to suppress student achievement, but if we are to herald our teachers when student performance is above the norm, they must be held accountable when performance falls far short. The new tier system for evaluation will no doubt provide a more accurate assessment of teacher effectiveness.

The issue of teacher retention, currently based on seniority and the principle of LIFO (last in, first out), was the subject of considerable scrutiny. As currently formulated in the bill, LIFO will be eliminated but grandfathered in so as to deflect the concerns and suspicions of the NJEA that the process as currently designed is too political and vulnerable to manipulation. I support the DOE and various administrators’ associations that LIFO should be ended immediately, as long as the bill is improved to create, in the words of NJEA President Ginger Goldschnitzer, a “strong and credible” procedure for evaluating teachers.

In the previous blog I spelled out a host of practical and procedural problems with the evaluation system envisioned in the bill, and several presenters suggested changes to make the system more fair and above reproach. Even the Principals’ Association, whose members evaluations will become the fulcrum for tenure, believe that a hearing would be proper when the issue of tenure is at stake. The NJEA believes that tenure issues resulting from the evaluation process should be handled by an arbitrator whose decision would be binding. And the Newark AFT made the point that if teachers are to be viewed as professionals- an important issue when we talk about attracting the “best and brightest” to education- then the evaluation process should also include peer review, and that this peer review be more than just “window dressing” for the bill; it should be an important component of the final evaluation.

The NJEA, as you might suspect, had the strongest objections to the bill. Their concerns with the “priority pool” and “mutual consent” provisions are legitimate  and should be addressed. They also pointed out the possibility of having a teacher retained year after year but never achieving tenure; the system can in a sense be rigged to keep a teacher from getting tenure in perpetuity. Their position, which I support, is that it should be “all or nothing” when it comes to tenure, otherwise you are creating a very divisive work environment that would vitiate efforts to improve teacher collegiality and effectiveness.

When it comes to the issues of greater accountability and improved effectiveness, the one “job description” that could play a critical part in both outcomes is that of the clinical supervisor. I have used this blog as a soapbox to beg and cajole anyone who will listen that New Jersey must require the hiring of clinical supervisors in every district, and that the overwhelming number of observations conducted in this state be clinical or formative in nature. There must be a person(s) in every district whose ONLY job is to improve the effectiveness of teachers. Every non-tenured and “at risk” teacher in a district must be under the direction of a clinical supervisor. Principals and other administrators just do not have the time to do an effective job providing the support that these teachers need. In my view, the absence of these professionals from this bill makes it nothing more than a political document, not a true reform measure.

Student achievement on standardized test scores will no doubt be an important metric for evaluating teachers, but it was pointed out that only 20% of subject areas are currently tested. I am hopeful that a greater good, that being a complete reworking of our HSPA, might result from this glaring hole in the evaluation process.

Student achievement on standardized test scores will no doubt be an important metric for evaluating teachers, but it was pointed out by several presenters that only 20% of subject areas are currently tested. This fact alone makes the creation of meaningful quantitative metrics to evaluate teachers problematic. I am hopeful that a greater good, that being a complete reworking of our HSPA, might result from this glaring hole in the evaluation process. The current HSPA only tests students in 2 of the 7 categories in the Core Curriculum Content Standards. Moreover, the current HSPA is completely detached from the “real world” content and skills we should be teaching and testing student on. The fact that we require certain content to be taught, but do not make this content part of the test for graduation, is both negligent and farcical.  Maybe an unintended consequence of the legislation will be the DOE revisiting its mandate to test students as a prerequisite for graduation. If so, I could not be happier.

And finally, it is clear to me that this legislation is the first step in the process for bringing performance pay into the system of remuneration we use for our educators. The jury is still out on whether performance pay will be  effective at improving teacher performance, but as a simple matter of fairness, and as a way of attracting “the best and brightest” to teaching, performance pay is an idea whose time has come. The four tiered system of evaluation in this bill provides an excellent foundation to initiate a performance pay scheme. However, it should also be pointed out that a significant body of research suggests that a “career ladder,” as opposed to a merit pay plan, might be a more effective modality for the teaching profession. My suggestion, which I believe is absolutely achievable, is to integrate the two ideas, creating a performance pay scheme that includes a career ladder for those teachers who ascend to the levels of “effective” and “highly effective.”

So in conclusion, Senator Ruiz has created a sound beginning to the creation of a more effective system for improving teacher accountability and effectiveness. As was clear from the testimony of the stakeholders, there is work to be done improving the current formulation of the bill. If all goes well, New Jersey might just end up with not only a great new law, but with a new graduation test and a new system for rewarding exemplary performance in the classroom. This might be wishful thinking, but by now it should be clear that the quality of education being provided to our children in the inner city is an embarrassment,  a disservice to the children, their families, and the businesses in our state that depend on a well-educated, highly skilled workforce. We need to embrace change, but we need to be sure that it is inclusive, with significant input from our teachers. Without their support, change will be slow, uneven, and inadequate.

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