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Gov. Christie Offers First Peek at Education Reform Bills

Seven draft bills tough on tenure, and even tougher on salary schedules and seniority.

Gov. Chris Christie yesterday released the details of seven draft bills sent to the legislature that he said will reform how teachers are evaluated and granted tenure in New Jersey.

Much as advertised, some of it is new, including some tougher-than-expected language on tenure.

Still, in a state where education policy has become almost blood sport -- and with a legislative election looming -- all of the governor's plan is sure to be hotly debated in the months and maybe years ahead.

"This [plan] is very difficult to do under the best of circumstances," said Patrick McGuinn, a Drew University professor of political science who follows education policy nationwide.

"Given the situation in New Jersey in the last couple of years -- even just the last couple of weeks -- it’s only going to be more difficult," he said.

Still, the details of Christie’s plan -- which was first introduced in a town hall six months ago -- are notable, some announced yesterday, others tucked into the bills his office released at 8 o’clock last night, and still others in policies yet to be unveiled.

The Tenure Tenets

Long advertised were the central tenets of Christie’s proposals, which would give teachers tenure only after three years of favorable evaluations, and take it away after one year in which he or she is found "ineffective," the lowest of four grades.

Currently, teachers gain tenure after their first three years, and then gain lifelong protections that make their removal for poor performance a rarity.

"Let me be clear," Christie said in a press conference in his outer office yesterday. "We don’t want to see the elimination of tenure, but the elimination the tenure system we have now."

Still, some is tougher than expected. Although hinted at before, the provision for removing a teacher after one bad review is a change from the Colorado evaluation system that has been a major influence in the development of this plan. In Colorado, where the system is going before the state board for adoption next week, it’s two years of the lowest grade that costs a teacher his or her tenure.

Also long discussed is Christie’s plan for basing those decisions on a new teacher evaluation system, in which half the grade is based on student achievement and test scores, and the other half based on more subjective measures and teacher observations.

Christie yesterday called for that evaluation system to be in effect by the 2012-2013 school year, the time it will take to put in place a data system linking teachers with their individual student's performance on standardized tests.

But how that linkage works has been a controversial topic. Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf said he would recommend what is called a "student growth percentile model," a system developed by a small think-tank based in New Hampshire, which is being used in one form or another in 15 states, including Colorado, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

It’s not easy to explain, but in short, students are measured on their achievement growth on a standardized test from one year to the next against other students of comparable academic level. Massachusetts provides a good primer for how it works.

The Center for Assessment, based in Dover, N.H., has developed the model, and according to its vice president is close to a contract with New Jersey for designing the system here. It would work with the Public Consulting Group, the consultant already developing the state’s student database, NJ SMART.

Scott Marion, the center’s vice president, in an interview yesterday stressed both the advantages and the limits of the model. He indicated it is only part of the overall evaluation, and only for those teachers whose students take standardized tests.

"It is a good model for contributing information to be part of a evaluation," he said in an interview yesterday. "That is an important distinction."

Still, he said the system provides a fair and accurate way to determine the very highest-performing teachers and the very lowest. "All the models struggle with the middle," he said.

Marion did caution about relying too much on the results for any single year, saying that it works best in measuring a teacher over multiple years. Marion said teachers can have more difficult students in a given year that can skew the scores.

"That’s why we encourage multiple years," he said. "If consistently low, then you can ask the questions about what’s wrong with that teacher. But if the scores are bouncing up and down, it could be how a teacher deals with a certain set of kids."

All this is new science, he acknowledged, and why he advised taking one’s time. He said the New Jersey’s system could be in place in a year, as Christie said, but states like Colorado that are even further along also plan to test it on a pilot basis for two additional years.

"You can design it in a year, but in any case, you want to pilot it so people can get used to it and get the kinks out," Marion said.

How that system rolls out is only part of the debate waiting for New Jersey, though.

Salary Schedules

Also notable yesterday was a new proposal that would essentially do away with contract salary schedules for teachers, a system in place for decades, in which teacher pay is based on years of service and advanced educational degrees.

Instead, Christie’s plan, as detailed in the draft bill released last night, would base pay and increases predominantly on teachers’ merit as determined in the evaluations and other factors unrelated to seniority or academic attainment. Those would include whether teachers work in hard-to-fill positions like science or math or in high-poverty districts.

The details of this new compensation system are still to be left to Cerf to determine, according to the bill, but remaking salary guides appears to be a bold swipe at collective bargaining as it now stands in New Jersey.

"There are two very different ways of doing merit pay in this country," said McGuinn, the Drew professor. "One is staying with the existing lockstep guide and sprinkling new money on top as bonuses. The other is more radical and really blows the whole thing up."

Other specifics in the draft bills provided their own political land mines and questions.

One would do away with seniority in determining layoffs, a contentious issue with teacher unions that maintain school districts will be prone to firing more experienced and expensive teachers.

Another would eliminate civil service protections, something that Christie maintained was redundant with the extent of school employees who are unionized.

No School, No Tenure

A new bill not discussed before would eliminate a provision in state law that protects the tenure of teachers in schools that are closed due to district consolidations or mergers. In addition, the proposal calls for the newly formed district to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with its faculty. Under current law, the new district must abide by the contract of the larger district being merged, a requirement that some have said discourages such consolidations.

Christie also seeks to further streamline the due process procedures for teachers facing tenure charges, setting new guidelines for cases to be decided within 30 days and for such teachers to no longer be paid after 120 days.

Given the scope of the announcement, the reaction at the Statehouse and by its key players yesterday was largely muted.

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) was predictably opposed to the bulk of the proposals, especially the reliance on test scores in evaluating teachers. Still, it also called for a "full public airing," a more conciliatory stance than usual.

The legislature’s Democratic leadership was virtually silent, with state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate’s education committee, the only one issuing a press release, which largely said she looked forward to reviewing the proposals.

Yet as the Democrats’ point person on education policy in the Senate, Ruiz retains a pivotal role, and she made clear that for all its fanfare, Christie’s proposal is not the only one under consideration.

Ruiz has been drafting her own tenure reform bill for several months, and while she said it had some common elements with the governor’s, she would proceed with her own bill as well.


Editor's note: A reference in the original story to a Christie administration proposal regarding tenured teachers in closed schools misrepresented its potential impact, according to state officials. The proposal in question would only relate to teachers whose schools are closed when whole districts consolidate or merge, not when individual schools are closed by a district. The text has been corrected.

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