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Tenure Reform: More Than Just a Matter of Time

For some experts there's no point in adding years with adding mentors as well.

In Hawaii, it’s just one year. In Ohio, it can be as many as seven. In between, most states pick three years as the magic number, after which a teacher receives tenure.

But times are changing, as states seek to add years to the requirements for a new teacher to be granted tenure -- New Jersey included. And with those changes has come the debate as to how much time is right, with little consensus beyond the agreement that adding years must also come with added support.

It will be a key debate here, as the legislature begins this month to weigh various tenure reform proposals. The law in New Jersey calls for teachers to automatically receive tenure after three years of teaching in a district, the span required in more than 30 states.

But led by Gov. Chris Christie and some of the legislature’s Democratic leaders, there is a move afoot to revamp that law, maybe as soon as this fall in the upcoming lame duck session.

The most prominent plan comes from Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who is proposing a system in which every teacher must receive three consecutive years of positive evaluations to receive and maintain tenure. He or she would also lose the protections after two consecutive years of negative reviews.

But in a back and forth likely to dominate the coming months, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) has come back with a proposal that calls for four years before a teacher receives tenure, instead of the current three. The NJEA’s plan wouldn’t have the same precise requirements for positive evaluations included in Ruiz’s bill, but it would streamline the process for removing ineffective teachers.

Notable in the union’s plan is also a requirement that the first year be a “residency” for the new teacher, working closely with a veteran teacher, and subsequent years would have stricter requirements for continued mentorship of the new teacher.

“Actually what we’re adding is not a fourth year but a first year,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the NJEA’s director of government relations. “It’s not just to give districts a longer look, which it would. But that’s not reason enough. The reason is to give a residency year like a doctor’s, where they have someone committed to coaching them and helping them be successful.”

But none of that comes cheap, as New Jersey has learned from less intensive mentorships for new teachers. Initially, when enacted as a statewide program more than a decade ago, the state provided funding for those mentors, as much as $500 per teacher. That funding was subsequently cut, and now novice teachers often pay the fee themselves. More worrisome for experts and others, there are few requirements on what that mentorship looks like.

Suzanne McCotter, associate professor of education leadership at Montclair State University, said too often there is little structure or commitment on the mentor’s part to do much good for the new teacher. “It’s really a 50-50 proposition in New Jersey,” she said.

And she said that has left New Jersey’s newest teachers at a disadvantage, whether the requirements for tenure are three, four, or any number of years.

“As a profession, we don’t use the first three years we have very wisely,” McCotter said. “We haven’t used it as a real testing ground for a teacher. It would be enough if it is used well, and some principals do a great job. But we need to do better.”

Meanwhile, other states are also adding conditions to the years a teacher must accumulate to receive tenure. Ohio has a “residency” requirement as part of the complex career ladder now offered teachers. Other states also provide mentorships as part of the first few years. But so far, they have seen the same success rate as New Jersey’s.

“It comes down to how they provide a quality program, that is critical,” said Kathy Christie, clearinghouse director of the Education Commission of the States in Denver, which tracks states’ policies.

“But it is really a mixed bag,” she said. “And that is too bad as the research has shown there is a direct tie between quality teaching and a quality (mentorship) program.”

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