Tenure Testimony Reveals A Troubled -- and Troubling -- System
Only a few tenure cases are filed each year, but low numbers can be misleading about what really happens in NJ schools.
The tiny number of tenure cases filed in New Jersey is no secret: only 33 cases against schoolteachers last year, 42 the year before, 35 the year before that.
Out of more than 100,000 schoolteachers statewide, 110 cases over three years is miniscule.
But yesterday, before the Senate Education Committee, more than five hours of testimony from teachers, administrators, union leaders, academics and other experts on the topic of tenure reform made clear those numbers only tell part of the story as to how schools operate, where the challenges lie beyond tenure, and how tenure has its impact, for good or ill.
Few disputed that the process clearly has its deep flaws. For some, it's the length of time and effort required to dismiss a teacher; for others, it's what they described as a culture of few consequences.
Expletives and Epithets
The superintendent of Orange schools outlined four cases in his district, one of a teacher who allegedly fought with another teacher and student, used expletives and a racial epithet, and showed other inappropriate conduct in class.
"Over a five-year period, while the employee engaged in the aforementioned, the employee was on a paid suspension for 563 days," said superintendent Ronald Lee. "The tenure charges resulted in [the judge] suspending the employee without pay for 30 days."
It’s not just protecting teachers, either, but administrators, too. The superintendent of South Orange/Maplewood schools said tenure protection for principals and other leadership positions leave superintendents with little discretion over their own senior staff.
“Just imagine as senators that you couldn’t change your chief of staff?” superintendent Brian Osborne asked the members of the panel.
Eased Out of the Classroom
Still, most agreed that the small numbers of tenure charges filed with the state are really only a fraction of the cases of low-performing teachers for whom the formal filing is a last resort, a vast majority of them eased out of the classroom as the complaints mount.
'You don’t see these statistics, but I would say that hundreds of teachers who receive the first tenure charges resign,” said Eugene Liss, general counsel to the Newark Teachers Union. "Maybe the case didn’t go all the way to Trenton, but many who sit with us, they end up leaving the profession."
Newark has a system in which teachers receiving unsatisfactory ratings are required to undergo additional training through Seton Hall University. Last year, it was 90 teachers, all but 12 of whom returned to the classroom, he said. Those 12 all resigned, none by tenure charges.
The System Is Broken
Still others pointed to an evaluation system for teachers with few standards across the state. The lone teacher to testify said that lack of a decent evaluation is all the more reason for the protections that come with tenure.
"The teacher evaluation system is broken, and the more it is broken, the more we need due process,” said Jeff Trifari, a North Bergen High School teacher and vice president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
He described an evaluation system in his school of one or two annual classroom observations that hasn’t changed in 20 years.
“They come in, check a few boxes off, and often don’t even stay the whole class period,” he said.
The Christie administration has proposed an overhaul of teacher and principal evaluation, appointing a task force to develop a statewide plan by March. The governor in an afternoon press conference said that plan will lead to changes in how teachers are promoted, paid and retained.
"Tenure as it is constituted now in New Jersey is absolutely failed and antiquated system that needs to be substantially reformed or eliminated," Christie said. "I have been clear about that over time, and that will be a big discussion and debate, I assume."
Administration officials spoke at the beginning of the hearing, and laid out many of the statistics, some familiar, others striking.
Of the 35 cases filed with the state in 2008, only 19 resulted in loss of tenure, while the rest saw reduced penalties. Eight cases were dismissed altogether.
And while there has been much discussion of better linking teacher with student performance, an official from the state Department of Education conceded the state still lacked the data system to even track such a link. He said it is still at least a year away.
“We don’t have the data system to prove that a teacher is ineffective,” said Chris Emigholz, the department’s legislative liaison. “With the current system, it is hard to get there.”
Testimony from a state senator from the Colorado elicited considerable attention, as he described a new tenure law in that state in which a teacher is only bestowed what is called “non-probationary status” if he or she has received satisfactory evaluations for three consecutive years.
At the same time, teacher can lose that status and placed back on probation -- and be eligible for dismissal -- if the evaluations are less than satisfactory for two consecutive years.
“It really made tenure a badge of honor,” said Mike Johnston, a state senator from Denver. “We know that nobody who has it wouldn’t have earned it.”