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Opinion: From Bad to Worse -- the Legislature Takes a Stab at Tenure Reform

An unproven, unreliable framework for reform is no better -- and possibly worse -- than today's failed scheme.

Okay, let's try this one more time.

Everyone seems to agree that the present scheme for evaluating teachers and principals is as good as useless. No system that judges 98 percent of workers to be "good" or "great" can be trusted.

At the same time, there's no agreement that a fair, consistent, reliable, and effective system exists to replace the current one. Nor are we close to having one.

Yet reformers continue to beat a drum -- hoping to make up in noise what they lack in accuracy -- pounding out that we are good-to-go with a comprehensive and workable teacher evaluation alternative.

We are not.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Education Committee, has introduced the second version of her bill to reform teacher tenure standards (S-407), reflecting much time and effort in rounding up the views of various interests.

S-407 includes some helpful improvements to current law. It recognizes that a teacher's first year can be hellacious, regardless of academic training. That's why Senator Ruiz wants to make sure rookie teachers are mentored throughout that first year, not just for the first month or so as under existing law. She makes the principal and a "school improvement panel" responsible for observing first-time teachers and providing whatever support they require.

Ruiz would require that school districts give up the quick, superficial "drive-by" professional development approach and invest their funds to meet the needs of individual teachers. Deeper, more relevant support makes sense.

The bill also accelerates the dismissal process for tenured faculty.

Unfortunately, those marginal improvements are outweighed by unrealistic and confusing mandates.

At first glance, it appears that Ruiz does not buy into the off-the-shelf-reformer's package that locks standardized test results to teacher evaluations and is silent about what to do with the 80 percent of instructors who teach a grade or subject not tested. The weight of coming up with a revised evaluation falls to each of New Jersey's 600 school districts. Let a hundred flowers bloom!

The problem is that there is no quantifiable, consistent method to evaluate second grade, French, music, or P.E. teachers. Not one. If state education departments, cities like Denver and Washington, D.C., and research universities cannot demonstrate a workable and affordable evaluation system, why expect the Linden or Ewing school districts to produce a sensible plan by the end of this year?

Since districts lack the time, talent, and funds to come up with a plan that will pass muster with the commissioner, they will be forced to adopt the state board's "model" plan. S-407 imposes thirteen requirements that mirror all the weaknesses of the reformist proposals. For example, the model must:

  • Use the still untested "value-added method" (VAM) that tracks student performance based on last year's exam results;

  • Give districts the responsibility for solving the thorniest and most complex puzzle -- evaluating teachers where there are no test results;

  • Ensure that only student achievement be used to evaluate teachers, thereby eliminating credit for collaborating with colleagues, increasing parent participation, or other efforts that boost the school's overall performance;

  • Mandate that the principal or vice/assistant principal participate in every classroom observation, inviting a bureaucratic and scheduling nightmare, and;

  • Confuse by requiring "a performance framework, associated evaluation tools, and observation protocols, including training and observer calibration resources."

The National Academies of Science warned that "VAM estimates of teacher effectiveness should not be used to make operational decisions because such estimates are far too unstable to be considered fair or reliable." There are several reasons for this warning: students are not assigned randomly, collaborative teaching results cannot be parsed, small sample sizes produce unreliable results, and so forth. The Ruiz bill is premature in imposing unproven practices that are way ahead of the science of testing and statistics.

Another reason to defer S-407 is that it gives unchecked authority to the same school principals who are at the heart of the current failed evaluation system. Principals apparently never see a teacher who is not at least "satisfactory" or deserving of tenure. Mysteriously, this record earns principals czar-like authority under the Ruiz bill.

S-407 gives unqualified power to principals to revoke tenure, a process that now involves years and big lawyer fees. The principal's decision cannot be reviewed by the superintendent or the board of education. No appeal or grievance can be filed unless the revocation flagrantly ignores the district's approved evaluation plan. None of the terms and conditions for such decisions can be bargained collectively.

The principal can also veto the transfer of any teacher to his or her school, even if the district is trying to improve the quality of the school's faculty.

In short, a huge bet is being placed on principals, even those tenured under the bad old system. Of course, the principal 's role deserves respect. We should hope that, over time, their preparation for the job will improve, particularly in increased clinical experience to judge instructional quality. Right now, their certification relies on wading through specified graduate courses of uncertain quality and relevance.

It is a bet too big and dangerous to make.

The legislature should draw a deep breath and not be stampeded by the governor's insistent drumbeat for immediate action.

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