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Opinion: Taking an Incremental Approach to Tenure Reform

Despite the bold rhetoric, New Jersey isn't best suited to sweeping changes and lengthy strides.

Over the past eighteen months, as Sen. Teresa Ruiz’s tenure reform bill has run the gauntlet of legislative hearings, lobbying by interest groups, and input from stakeholders, New Jersey has been harshly schooled in how much can be accomplished in the arena of education reform. Just call us “incrementalist.”

In fact, a long-running debate in education circles across the country is whether substantive change is best achieved incrementally or boldly. One lesson for bystanders during these intense months of consensus-building and compromise is that New Jersey is far more amenable to small steps rather than long strides.

Consider that exemplar of long strides: LIFO, the child-unfriendly practice of laying off teachers by years served rather than classroom effectiveness. Treasured by union officials and disparaged by reform types, LIFO was slated for complete elimination in the original version of Senate Bill S1455. Then this past March, at a meeting of the Senate Education Committee, word slipped out that current teachers would be grandfathered in and only new hires would be unprotected by seniority during layoffs. Last week another iteration of the legislation made no reference to LIFO at all. Score one for incrementalism.

However, Bill S1455 ties teacher evaluations to “multiple measures” of student outcomes and significantly expedites the process of firing ineffective tenured teachers. Not quite a stride, but surely a large step in the direction of education reform for a set of protections once shielded by NJEA’s force field.

If the evolution of Ruiz’s bill is any indication, New Jersey is all about incrementalism. We’re not Colorado, where a Democratically controlled legislature passed a tenure law (SB 191) last year that bases 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluations on student test scores, eliminates LIFO, and implements mutual consent (in the case of a transfer, both principal and teacher must agree on the placement).

Nor are we Illinois which, under Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, passed a bipartisan bill backed by the teachers union which eliminates LIFO and requires that districts consider student growth as a “significant factor” in teaching evaluations. Or Indiana, Michigan, Utah, Tennessee, Florida -- all long-stride states.

(To be fair, we’re also not Connecticut, where the Governor swung wide on a tenure reform bill and then pulled back. Months of politicking yielded no change in, for example, Hartford’s policy of using social security numbers as a tie-breaker during layoffs when two teachers have accumulated equal seniority.)

This past January Gov. Chris Christie thundered in his State of the State speech, "It is time to end the system of last-in/first-out, which protects some of the worst and penalizes some of the best.”

A month later, acting Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf issued this statement:

“Incremental progress might be fine inside the NJEA offices. But it is not good enough for the student that is assigned to a failing school without any choice available to them for a better option. The NJEA would be satisfied to tell that student not to worry about the achievement gap that has determined their destiny -- it is just a “straw man” after all. But that student doesn’t care about the incremental progress we’ve made in the last two decades. Not when they are the one that is still left behind.”

Both Christie and Cerf urge bold change. But political reality in New Jersey seems to be aligned with incremental change. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal noted, in regard to S1455, “[t]he governor signaled that he can live with a tenure bill without seniority. That opened the doors to negotiate.” Maybe we’ve just grown up, accepting our foibles and limitations. Maybe it’s political expediency. One way or another, New Jersey seems awfully close to reforming tenure and evaluations.

Of course, this mature acceptance of our innate incrementalism doesn’t do much for the urgent need of, in Cerf’s words, “the student assigned to a failing school.” Perhaps, as a corollary of that acceptance, we should be more open to strategies that address the urgency effaced by that concession. If our strategy is slow, sustainable change, then shouldn’t we embrace different varieties of school choice so that children in failing schools have a shot at a decent education right now?

There’s a lot to celebrate in a tenure reform bill that, as the NJEA put it in its press release, “achieves broad consensus.” Now we have to rally together again so that, incrementally and deliberately, we can take our next step.

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