Race to the Top Can Speed Change, But Change is Coming Regardless

Tenure reform, merit pay and charter schools are fast becoming the mainstays of tomorrow’s education policies

For all the attention paid to the federal Race to the Top competition, the applications submitted tend to reflect changes that are in the works — whether or not the state takes away any of that Federal money.

The $3.4 billion in federal grants that New Jersey and other states are hoping for will certainly ease the change, but Gov. Chris Christie has echoed most other governors in saying the changes — or at least proposals for change — are coming, either way.

Charter school expansion, tenure reform and merit pay are all prominent ideas in state capitols across the country, Republican and Democratic.

So although New Jersey was announced this week as one of 19 finalists for the federal grants, the 1,000-page application is as much a blueprint for the state’s public schools’ future, no matter what the judges in Washington, D.C. will decide.

And with the finalist selection and the renewed spotlight on New Jersey’s application, three ideas stand out as central to both Christie’s agenda and the state’s chance of success with the feds.

Tenure Reform

Christie and his education commissioner, Bret Schundler, have long said they want to change how New Jersey’s teachers are granted job protections and paid accordingly.

It was this topic as much as any that led to a split between the two on the eve of the application’s filing in June, when Schundler had agreed to compromise with the teachers unions to leave much of tenure alone and Christie said it would only water down real reforms and rejected the deal.

Seniority could no longer be used as the sole arbiter of a teacher’s promotion or dismissal, Christie said. Performance has to matter, he declared, and he promised both in the application and elsewhere that legislation would be filed to change the way teachers are judged and retained.

But New Jersey’s proposal is hardly pushing the envelope, since tenure is no longer the third-rail of school politics.

“When I started looking at this just last summer, there was a whole lot of nothing going on around tenure,” said Patrick McGuinn, associate professor of political science at Drew University, who has closely followed federal education policy.

“But as I went though successive drafts of my research, the changes only escalated,” he said. “At this point, New Jersey is not expanding the boundaries so much as embracing the mean of what’s happening elsewhere.”

That’s not to say it won’t be contentious. Nearly a century ago, New Jersey was the first state in the country to enact tenure, and the New Jersey Education Association drew its own line in the sand in rejecting wholesale change to those protections.

Still, McGuinn said the state needs to be careful not to focus too much on just the tenure side of the equation and to take a broader approach to teacher quality — one that goes beyond how to dismiss teachers or what protections they’re afforded.

“As massive layoffs are going to happen, this will redraw the spotlight on the flaws in the policies we have,” he said. “But just replacing bad teachers with bad teachers doesn’t get us anywhere.

“It needs to be more about training, professional development, evaluation and data-driven improvement,” he said. “Professional development needs to be front and center.”

Merit Pay

New Jersey proposed in its application three tiers of merit bonuses and performance-based pay for teachers: bonuses to individual teachers for raising achievement, especially for at-risk students; grants to schools that show systemic improvements; extra incentives to teachers who are willing to work in high-needs districts.

“New Jersey’s is actually more detailed than most,” said Michael Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based clearinghouse and think-tank.

But for all the detail, the application does not put dollar figures on what each teacher may gain under the different scenarios, saying it would come out of coming discussions and a recommendations from a committee of stakeholders, union representatives included.

“It has to be high enough to actually change behaviors and attitudes,” Griffith said. “For $500, you’re not likely to change. For $5,000, you’ll think about it. For $20,000, you’ll definitely see change.”

But as such, he said other states’ histories with merit and performance pay — in all their different variations — provide a cautionary tale, even with the federal help.

“You can’t be too detailed without knowing how many districts will participate and how much money will come from the feds,” he said. “It can be pretty expensive, and as other states have learned, you need to know how you are going to fund it once the federal money runs out.”

“Especially when you hit bad economic times, it can be very difficult,” he said.

Charter Schools

Charter schools were once thought to be the central provision in President Obama’s mission for the Race to the Top grants. A big proponent of charters, he sought to break down barriers for new schools to open but also for the state to better monitor mediocre and bad ones.

New Jersey is already considered to have one of the nation’s more stringent charter school laws, with strict requirements and a rigid application process that has led to a trickle of new schools opening each year.

At the same time, Newark especially has become a hotbed of activity for the movement, with a handful of charter schools among the state’s superstars and organizations funded through state and national foundations promoting more.

Under the proposal submitted with Race to the Top, the Christie administration has said it would open the process further, providing more paths for more schools to apply and more resources once they are open.

One of the specific proposals is for the creation of multiple “authorizers,” where certain colleges or universities would be chosen to review and approve new charters.

Now, only the state Department of Education grants the charters, but amid its own staff reductions, it is hardly at full strength.

“Authorizing really does matter,” said Katrina Bulkley, an associate professor of education leadership at Montclair State University. “The quality and capacity of the authorizers is important. To do a credible job, you need the capacity.”

She credited New Jersey for expanding the field, but added that it must move carefully as well in setting the expectations for authorizers and even thinking about where they are placed.

“You need to think about serving the different regions, too,” she said. “You want them to be where they can build relationships with the schools, build a trust where they can help them make those networks happen.”