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"Dance of the Lemons" Keeps Ineffective Teachers Moving from School to School

John Mooney | March 21, 2011

The administration's "mutual consent" would give principals the right to refuse proposed teacher transfers.

In education circles -- and a few parent ones -- it’s been called the “dance of the lemons," a derisive description of the way districts' central offices shuffle ineffective teachers from school to school.

It’s a term that the state’s acting education commissioner Chris Cerf often uses when discussing an idea he says is central to Gov. Chris Christie’s move to reform teacher tenure.

The idea is known as "mutual consent." Under a proposal being drafted by the administration, the involuntary transfers of teachers would end and instead any transfer would require consent of both the teacher and the principal at the receiving school.

Under current practice in many districts, the discretion is totally with the superintendent and the school board.

But maybe most controversial, teachers who are not accepted for transfer would be given one school year to find a job elsewhere in the district. Failing that, they would then be removed from the payroll.

The concept has been enacted into legislation in a few states, including Colorado and Rhode Island, as well as in several large cities such as New York City, Baltimore and Chicago.

"It is completely unfair to hold schools and their principals accountable for their results when you have taken away discretion over the most important single factor that leads to those results," said Cerf, who was deputy chancellor in New York City when the measure was enacted there.

Ending the Dance

As much as it drives parents crazy, the dance is no joy for principals, either.

Take Linda Richardson, the principal of the high-performing Ann Street School in Newark, which Gov. Chris Christie visited Thursday to trumpet his education reform plans for the district.

When asked afterward what one change she would want in Christie’s whole reform agenda, Richardson didn’t say ending tenure or a better evaluation system or anything like merit pay.

She’d said she’d just like to control her own staffing.

"What we really need is autonomy over who works in the building," said Richardson, who has been in the district more than 30 years. "When we are able to select and train the teachers, that continues and propagates our success."

"When people are transferred in for a variety of reasons, we have to work three times as hard in developing them to the Ann Street way of thinking," she said.

First presented in Cerf’s rollout of Christie’s tenure reform proposals last month, the mutual consent proposal is still in development. It's included in various draft bills that continue to circulate in the Statehouse but are yet to be filed.

Still, it could be a tricky proposition in New Jersey. The abundance of small districts with just a few schools makes the mechanism largely moot in many communities, where there are limited places to shuttle teachers between.

And even in the larger ones like Newark, New Jersey’s courts have left transfers entirely at the employer’s discretion. That’s a key distinction from large districts outside New Jersey, where labor contracts often give teachers seniority rights in accepting or rejecting transfers.

Joseph DelGrosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union, said the transfer procedures could use improvement. Teachers are currently able to apply for transfers, but the decision as to who is eligible is left entirely to the district.

For instance, he said, there will be a jobs fair next month for Newark teachers who wish to move to so-called turnaround schools within the district. These are chronically low-performing schools that are now recipients of big federal grants. But neither the highest-rated teachers nor the lowest-rated may apply, he said.

“So it’s just the teachers in the middle,” he said. “How stupid is that?”

Still, DelGrosso said a proposal that would remove a teacher altogether if he or she could not get a placement would run counter to current tenure laws, which he does not see ending anytime soon.

As part of the broader tenure reforms, Cerf has proposed a system in which teachers would need three consecutive years of positive teacher evaluations to receive tenure protections. They would lose it after two consecutive years of unsatisfactory reviews. That proposal is also in draft bill form, but has yet to be filed.

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