Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Addressing Concerns Over Tenure and Teacher Quality

In today's Trenton Times a guest Op-Ed piece by Wayne Gillikin wonder "aloud" about the possible ramifications for New Jersey of a recent California Supreme Court decision that declared its State's tenure and seniority laws in violation of its Constitution. Mr. Gillikin is justifiably concerned about the implications of a "free market" in education, with the forces of supply and demand inexorably driving the good teachers into quality school districts and less skilled teachers into the bad ones, most of which are unfortunately found in our poorer, inner city districts. And while I share his concerns, I would like to point out that New Jersey has been fairly proactive in the area of teacher quality and accountability. As with all initiatives, there will be some good and some bad resulting from these efforts, and they do demand the attention and vigilance of the public if we are to see that these initiatives do not exacerbate the already horrendous and unethical inequities that exist in our State, because this split Mr. Gillikin fears is the reality in our State.

Governor Christie recently announced an initiative, in concert with several foundations, to create an "incentive pool" to attract new STEM (science, technology, engineering, math)teachers to our inner city schools. Granted, the commitment these new teachers would be required to make is just short of the years required for tenure, but I guess that is designed to protect the school's from being forced to retain teachers that turn out to be substandard. Some of these teachers would probably come from our Schools of Education (which I think is a bad idea), but most would be graduates with a "specialized" degree in a field other than teaching. This would mean that these teachers would be participating in the "alternate route" program, which has been around since 1987; I was in fact a member of that first "graduating class."

I guess my point is that these poorer districts can find potentially great teachers from outside the "hallowed" walls of our Schools of Education, but these districts must be willing to commit resources to the search for these "diamonds in the rough," and then have money put aside to incentivize the pursuit of these teachers and entice them to commit. But it doesn't stop there. If these inner city districts want to keep these potentially great teachers, whether they come through the Governor's program or just through the existing alternate certification route, there will have to be an enormous commitment of supervisory resources to make sure they are receiving the guidance and support needed to keep these new teachers confident, enthusiastic, and committed. There MUST be practical, clinical supervisors in place, much more so than "department" supervisors, if these teachers are to stay in education and make it a career.

New Jersey also passed an "Accountability Act" last year that introduced for the first time a new set of metrics to assess and evaluate teacher quality. The metrics came with a series of rubrics that teachers are expected to complete as part of the process. These rubrics, combined with a series of classroom evaluations, are together designed to provide insight into a teacher's competence as an educator. Anyone with a "clear set of eyes" must  acknowledge that this "Act" is basically a "gotcha" plan meant to weed out not only incompetent but also "undesirable" teachers, regardless of their skill. This Accountability Act is also the first step on the path to merit or performance pay, anyone denying this is being disingenuous at best.

I have previously addressed the shortcomings of the current "brands" of metrics that school districts can choose from, and how these metrics are undermining rather than improving the learning environment in NJ schools. There are so many better ways of improving accountability, ways I have and will continue to explore, that I am left to seriously wonder whether truly effective change is ever possible in a system that requires education reform to pass through the hands of our politicians and our supposed academic "experts."

So, Mr. Gillikin, you are right to be concerned about the quality of education in our poorer, mostly urban schools. Leaving the teaching profession to the vicissitudes of a free market is not the way to go, but neither is a system that discourages risk taking and protects mediocrity. Based on test scores and graduation rates alone, you can reach no other conclusion than that these schools stink. Now obviously the problem is much more complicated than just teacher quality; it is my contention that nothing less than radical reform will be necessary if inner city students are to receive an education that is every bit as excellent in terms of quality and utility. Making changes to the tenure system, to the system of remuneration, to the places we look for our future teachers, and to the curriculum we require of students to learn are all essential if we are to be honest in our desire to provide greater equity in our education system. An equitable distribution of quality teachers would go a long way towards that goal.

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