Why N.J. teacher-tenure reform plan matters to the rest of America

Gov. Chris Christie's new proposal, unveiled Wednesday, continues the national debate over how to reform teacher tenure. Seven other states have passed or are considering similar legislation.

Craig Ruttle / AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) discusses his education proposals in New York on April 7. His new plan to reform teacher tenure continues his efforts to take on teachers' unions.

Gov. Chris Christie (R) took another step toward reforming teacher tenure in New Jersey when he unveiled a package of education proposals Wednesday.

Moves to weaken traditional job protections for teachers are gaining momentum around the country. Tenure reform bills were recently signed into law in Florida and Tennessee, and are being considered in Illinois, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and several other states. Delaware and Colorado passed such laws last year.

In Oklahoma, a bill cleared a House committee on April 12 that would broaden the list of reasons teachers can be fired to include dishonesty, insubordination, negligence, and failing to comply with school district policies.

“For too long, we have failed to adequately and honestly judge the performance of New Jersey’s teachers based on the only outcome that actually matters – how well our children are learning,” Governor Christie said yesterday.

Specifically, his proposals would, among other things:

  • Require four years of teaching – and three years of being rated as “effective” or “highly effective” – before tenure could be earned.
  • Base 50 percent of a teacher’s ratings on evidence of growth in student achievement (as shown by state assessments and other measures). The other half of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on observations of classroom practice.
  • Remove tenure for teachers who receive an “ineffective” rating for one year or a “partially effective” rating for two consecutive years.

The Florida law, signed recently by Gov. Rick Scott (R), also bases half of teacher evaluations on student achievement – but it also virtually eliminates tenure by giving new teachers annual contracts and allowing them to be renewed only if teachers receive good evaluations.

Tenured teachers have due-process protections when a school district wants to fire them; districts can more easily remove untenured teachers.

“Making the awarding of tenure meaningful and connecting it to actual evidence of effectiveness certainly is good for students,” says Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, which backs tenure reform.

Opponents of such reforms, such as the New Jersey Education Association teachers' union, say that New Jersey doesn't yet have evaluation systems in place that could judge teacher effectiveness fairly, especially if based on test scores. They also raise concerns that rhetoric around such laws targets teachers as if they are the cause of educational problems, creating an atmosphere that could lead to teacher shortages.

Christie’s reforms could face an uphill battle in New Jersey's Democrat-controlled legislature.

In Illinois, two major teachers’ unions actually worked with lawmakers on a bill being considered this week that would make it easier to fire underperforming teachers. The bill would require teachers to be rated as “excellent” or “proficient” for two years during the four years it takes to earn tenure.

The Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers said in a joint statement that it was “an historic piece of legislation that exists today because of everyone's commitment to putting politics aside and doing what's in the best interest of our kids.”

Meanwhile, the nation’s second-largest school system, Los Angeles Unified, announced it will begin measuring schools based on their success at raising student achievement, and will provide many teachers with access to their own scores using what’s known as value-added data, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The Times stirred up controversy last summer by publishing its own value-added database of teacher ratings. The district is negotiating with the union to include value-added measures in teacher evaluations, the Times reports.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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