Thursday, March 8, 2012

Senator Ruiz Presents Tenure Bill to Packed Hearing

This past Monday I attended Senator Ruiz’s long anticipated hearing on S1455, the “Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey Act,” otherwise known as TeachNJ. The passion that this bill generates was clear from the start, as supporters and opponents took turns expressing their views on the draft. After a full day of intense listening I came away optimistic that reform is on the horizon, but I was less than sanguine about the bill in its present form.

S1455 is a long overdue and much needed effort to reform the manner in which teachers earn and maintain tenure throughout their career in the classroom, in addition to ending the practice of "last in, first out," or LIFO. It provides a solid foundation from which we can debate and hopefully implement a system of remuneration based on performance-and including a career ladder- rather than years of service. Unfortunately, there are some critical flaws that will make implementation of the plan problematic. The legislation as it is currently written also raises some questions as to the primary motivation for the bill and its ability to meet both of its stated objectives, improving teacher accountability AND effectiveness.

As indicated in the legislations title, the bill is designed to improve teacher effectiveness and hold such educators accountable for the choices and decisions they make to fulfill their responsibilities to our children. However, other than the addition of some supplemental professional development programs for “at risk” tenured teachers, and the implementation of a mentoring program for first year teachers, there is nothing in this bill indicating a desire to actually improve the performance of teachers other than the threat of losing tenure or be possibly transferred. It would be hard for any teacher reading this legislation to come away from it not seeing this as anything but a “gotcha” bill that gives principals enormous leverage in scouring the faculty to remove poor teachers or, possibly, those whose style does not comport with their own. Admittedly, removing poor teachers is a worthy goal, but an equally important goal would be broad improvement of teacher effectiveness; this legislation falls far short of that need.

I am at a loss to understand- as were representatives of the Supervisors Association-  why there is no mention and no participation whatsoever of department supervisors in the observations conducted by the School Improvement Panel. Students are in class to learn both skills and content, and the ability of the teacher to connect the two through the teacher’s lesson plan is critical; department supervisors are much better equipped to understand the goals and intent of the teacher in this regard.  

This leads to my second point.  Each teacher is supposed to receive multiple observations, including one summative evaluation. In summative evaluations the goal of improving teacher effectiveness is secondary- you are really doing nothing more than recording what you see- and so I would like to presume that most or all of the other observations are clinical or formative in nature. To be effective, these observations require a pre and post conference in addition to the actual lesson. These are time consuming and collaborative in nature for the vast majority of teachers. Given the amount of time that administrators invariably spend dealing with superiors at the Board Office, in addition to their other responsibilities, it is inconceivable to me that these observations can be properly planned, implemented, and followed up to yield meaningful professional development.

There is also an issue whether these evaluations will be “drop in” or scheduled observations. Besides the disruption that an observation can create, any teacher will tell you that observations can affect the classroom dynamic. Evaluators obviously don’t want to observe a contrived, “scripted” class lesson, but you also don’t want to “drop in” and create any undue tension or stress for the teacher as well. Remember, the importance of these observations has now been elevated; a teacher’s career is  at stake.

Moreover, I have some concern that this new process, especially when done by administrators other than a department supervisor, will stifle innovation and risk taking on the part of the teacher. Where job security is now the issue, risk averse, conventional lessons will more likely be the norm unless the rubrics show a propensity to reward “entrepreneurial” type behavior by the teacher.

The power this bill gives to principals is substantial, and the fact that his/her decisions cannot be grieved shows almost contempt for the notions of due process and equal protection under the law.  Teachers are currently granted by law the right to a Loudermill Hearing whenever disciplinary action is taken that impacts or removes a teacher’s property right, in this the teacher’s tenure. This bill seems to completely disregard this right. There seems to be a presumption in this bill that the relationship between teachers and administrators is efficient, effective, and harmonious, and that teachers will willingly acquiesce to their decisions. This, quite frankly, requires a real leap of faith.

The bill pairs first year teachers with a mentor, but what about the other years leading up to tenure? I also don’t see why underperforming teachers aren’t also paired with a mentor. Their situation is essentially no different than that of the non-tenured teacher, and in both situations the supposed (putative?) goal is the same, to improve their effectiveness in the classroom.

One of the most moving presentations of the day was made by a young lady,  the parent of two “special needs” children, who noted the lack of specificity in the bill regarding the needs of special education students.  Special education is the fastest growing component of public education, and special education teachers find themselves in a variety of unique teaching/learning environments and structures. Although the bill does provide exclusions for employees whose job description differs from the classroom teacher, guidance counselors for example, I think it is important that, given the unique nature of the job, special education programs be directly addressed .

Charter schools are required to abide by all of the substantive portions of the bill that are relevant to the goal of teacher quality, but I think this legislation could prove onerous for many of these schools, and that there should some flexibility worked into the legislation whereby a charter school can present an “action plan” to abide by the goals of the legislation without following the absolute requisites laid out in the bill. On a side note, I heard several attendees comment on how charter schools, who receive 90% of per pupil costs in the sending district to finance their schools education plan, are shut out from receiving any facilities funding. This is a subject that is clearly connected to teacher effectiveness and deserving of attention.

Improving teacher quality and effectiveness is the single most critical issue facing public education. But, as many presenters pointed out, including the Principals’ Association and the Chamber of Commerce, achieving that goal requires taking a multifaceted approach: we need to attract the “best and the brightest” college graduates, we need to encourage the use of alternate routes into teaching, we need to rethink and redo our core curriculum content standards to reduce what we require kids to learn, we need to replace the existing graduation test with one that reflects the entire school curriculum and is tied to real world needs. And finally, we need to institute an integrated merit pay/career ladder plan to reward our best teachers and encourage disinterested, uninspiring, and generally ineffective teachers to improve their performance. The restructuring of our tenure system is in fact an important step towards creating a viable merit pay/career ladder plan.

Though it does a good job of redesigning the “levels” of effective teaching and tying retention to performance rather than seniority, the legislation before us falls short in its goal of actually improving teacher quality. It is designed more to “catch” bad teachers than to make the occupation more professional and the teachers more effective. What is needed, what MUST be included in this legislation, is a commitment to providing clinical supervision for our teachers. I believe these clinical supervisors should be tied to the evaluation process, but at the very least they should be required on site so teachers can avail themselves of their expertise.

I believe that every high school in New Jersey should be required to have a clinical supervisor on staff, with the primary goal of providing their expertise to all non-tenured or “at risk” teachers at the school. They would also be available so that other teachers can request their assistance in the classroom. In fact the “multiple observations” required by the bill should- in the case of the non-tenured and at risk teachers- be carried out by the clinical supervisor in concert with the principal. This will also help stem any perception of abuse of power by the principal.

There is an obvious lack of teacher or administrator input into the construct of this bill, as anyone with experience in schools will tell you that the members of the School Improvement Panel will find it almost impossible to coordinate their schedules so as to provide fair, comprehensive observations above reproach. Research clearly indicates that “the frequency with which teachers are evaluated and feedback provided is correlated with teachers’ confidence in their supervisor’s evaluation, their satisfaction with their work, and student achievement.”

Other than offering supplemental professional development and a mentoring program for first year teachers, there is nothing in this legislation designed to improve teacher effectiveness other than the threat to job security. This may lead some to see this bill as a cynical approach to our most pressing educational need.

Effective clinical supervision is the key to improving teacher effectiveness. Its absence from this bill is a fatal flaw, as none of the other actors in this drama can offer the time and expertise necessary to provide the training the authors of this legislation claim to want.

Taken in total, this is a bill heavily skewed towards teacher accountability, with only a modest proposal to improve teacher performance. With modifications, especially those ideas offered by the panel presenters the bill is deserving of support. As it is currently written, it should be rejected.

No comments:

Post a Comment