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Opinion: End the Education Circus Act

No more gasp-inducing theatrics; let’s just hire (and keep) the most effective teachers.

New Jerseyans were treated to a circus spectacle as the deadline for the state’s Race to the Top application approached. For those who need a recap, here’s how things unfolded beneath the big top:

Education Commissioner Bret Schundler grandly unveils a package containing all the elements required to win up to $400 million in federal money: tenure reform, merit pay, teacher evaluations tied to student growth, investment in our leaky and inadequate data systems, and -- the big one -- lay-offs determined by performance, not seniority.

Executives from the New Jersey Education Association, gravely offended, send in the big cats.

The startled crowd gasps as NJEA leaders successfully lobby for major concessions, including retraction of plans to base lay-offs on teacher effectiveness.

Then, just as NJEA and Schundler soar off their trapeze and grasp hands high above the throng, Ringmaster Christie swooshes in and snatches the net away. The original application is submitted and the cover letter exults, "In the event of a workforce reduction, educational effectiveness, not seniority, will determine which teachers keep their jobs."

And for the closing act: Bret Schundler skulks off covered in sawdust, bruised NJEA leaders howl in protest, and the ephemeral embrace between education reformers and union officials vanishes like so much spun sugar.

Amidst the various reforms proposed in our Race to the Top application, one in particular turns New Jersey’s public school culture on its head: giving local school districts the ability to remove ineffective teachers. Despite protests from NJEA President Barbara Keshishian that tenure is "nothing more than a guarantee of due process to ensure a teacher is not dismissed for personal or political reasons," the rate of tenured teacher removal in New Jersey is 1.2 percent.

The reason for this dilution of our staff's general excellence is simple: it costs a lot of money and effort for a cash-starved school district to dismiss an ineffective tenured teacher -- at least $100,000, plus lots of administrative time involved in charges and hearings and appeals. And NJEA's front office excels at defending ineffective teachers, regardless of evidence of accrued by local school districts. One study from Harvard University and the Program on Education Policy and Governance quotes an NJEA rep who says, “I’ve gone in and defended teachers who shouldn’t even be pumping gas.”

But the issue is bigger than legislated tenure laws and the NJEA dominance. Indeed, nothing matters more to a child in a chronically failing school district -- our Camdens, Trentons, and Newarks -- than having a great teacher.

Education Trust President Kati Haycock explains:

“Our emerging understanding of the critical importance of good teachers has especially profound implications for poor and minority youngsters, because no matter how quality is defined, these youngsters come up on the short end. While the teaching force in high-poverty and high-minority communities certainly includes some of the most dedicated and talented teachers in the country, the truth is that these teachers are vastly outnumbered by under- and, indeed, unqualified colleagues.”

There it is: nothing matters more to a struggling student than a great teacher. Research shows that if low-income children could be guaranteed teachers in the top 25 percent of their profession throughout high school, we’d erase the achievement gap. Yet local districts are stymied in their efforts to ensure that students are instructed by effective teachers.

Case in point: the Parsippany Hills school librarian who was laid off even though she’d just won "Teacher of the Year." Local media repeatedly attributed her dismissal to "budget cuts." In fact, the reason she got fired was because Parsippany Hills must retain all teachers on the payroll -- effective or not -- and their finest educator was only on staff for three years. Seniority trumps all. Effective performance is meaningless.

New Jersey's Race to the Top application proposes to address this insanity. Our best teachers -- just like high performers in other professions -- would welcome the opportunity to be judged not on years tallied but on educational effectiveness. (See this great report from The New Teacher Project called "The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness.")

From our application:

“In our neediest schools, concerted action must be taken to ensure ineffective teachers are removed. Therefore, in persistently low-achieving schools identified in Section E, if a teacher is rated ineffective for three consecutive years, the LEA [local school district] will take action pursuant to N.J.S.A 18A:6-11 to remove the individual for inefficiency.”

In spite of the circus recently witnessed, can NJEA's leadership get behind this critical reform? Whether we win Race to the Top or not, it's a potential game-changer for our neediest kids. Our application proposes a pilot that would encompass 20 percent of NJ's students. Perhaps Schundler and Ringmaster Christie could limit the pilot to our chronically failing schools. Perhaps NJEA's executive team could give those kids a chance. Take Camden High, for example, where only 26 percent of students can pass the High School Proficiency Assessment. If each of those students could be guaranteed one of our excellent teachers, how would that change their prospects?

Imagine a new act: NJEA's leadership and the state Department of Education work together to formulate a plan that allows our chronically failing schools to recruit and retain the best teachers. Ineffective teachers are removed, after establishing a metric outlined by the Educational Effectiveness Evaluation Committee (already proposed in our Race to the Top application) which consists of all stakeholders. Effective teachers work within a culture that fosters professionalism and accountability. (Higher pay? Sure. They've earned it.) After a few years, evaluate student learning. If successful, expand to other districts.

No trapezes, no high wires, no wild animals. Just New Jersey's education community soaring higher, with elegance and efficiency.

Laura Waters has been president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County for six years. She also blogs about New Jersey education policy and politics at NJLeftBehind.com. A former instructor at SUNY Binghamton in a program that served educationally disadvantaged students from New York's inner cities, she holds a Ph.D. in early American literature from Binghamton.

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