Gov. Christie Addresses the Details of His Educational Reforms

John Mooney, Education writer | September 29, 2010 | Education
Suddenly the governor’s ideas are starting to sound almost mainstream, but implementation challenges remain

Gov. Chris Christie is nothing if not consistent — at least when it comes to his ideas about education.

And as anyone knows who’s caught one of the governor’s press conferences (or YouTube videos), he can be equally combative about those same ideas.

But what seemed challenging not that long ago “…is actually the new normal inside states these days,” said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University.

Accountability for teachers and principals, ways to reward those who excel and to fire those who fail, a whole new way of thinking about how we evaluate and retain our educators.

Actually, none of these ideas are necessarily unique to New Jersey anymore.

McGuinn added that President Obama’s support for many of these concepts in his Race to the Top competition, has “changed the politics and dynamics around these issues dramatically.”

But the challenge comes in turning these ideas into action, and that means detailing how each will be implemented.

Christie delivered some of those details yesterday:

Data Collection

New Jersey has long been saddled with a slow-moving system that did not allow the state to link individual teachers with the performance and achievement of their students.

Years and tens of millions in the making, NJ SMART now has in place a full tracking system for every student and teacher, but not the mechanism to bring their performance together — at least not yet.

It was one of the key weaknesses cited in the state’s unsuccessful Race to the Top application, and Christie yesterday conceded it remains a gaping need. He promised to appropriate $10 million in the next two years to bring the system up to speed.

“The current system is just not capable of linking principals and teachers with student performance, and that is the linchpin of what we want to do,” he said.

The money will help dramatically, although the $10 million is a fraction of what the state asked for in its Race to the Top bid. And few argue with the need, no matter the political party or the organization. Officials have said with the right resources and commitment, the system could be ready within two years.

Teacher Evaluation and a New Task Force

In previous proposals, the governor and his staff had suggested a large — perhaps cumbersome is the better word — committee of experts and educators to devise guidelines for how teacher evaluation should be conducted across the state, with a heavy emphasis on student performance. The committee was to be 37 members strong, with names already submitted from key stakeholders promised a place at the table.

Yesterday, Christie scaled his original proposal way back. Before the presentation began, he signed an executive order to create the nine-member Task Force on Teacher Effectiveness. The order did not define who would serve on the panel, only to say it would be a “broad range of education practitioners and experts” appointed by the governor.

Still, the job of the new task force wouldn’t change much from what Christie’s initial proposal called for: setting standards for a statewide evaluation system that weighs heavily – at least 51 percent – on student achievement measures. It will also make recommendations for a system that would allow the state to reward those educators who showed they boosted achievement.

Whether those measures will be state tests, local tests, less-tangible means, or all of the above will be discussed by the task force. And it will be discussed quickly, since the group is charged with coming back with a report to the governor by next March, speeding up the previous timeframe.

The change of plans caught many of the main stakeholder groups by surprise yesterday, with some complaining they were now being left out of the decision process. But most of them also acknowledged they were eager to see who will be selected before making any further judgment.

Principal Recruitment and Alternate route

This idea has not gotten the same attention as the others in New Jersey, home to the nation’s first “alternate route” track for teachers. It remains one the nation’s most prolific as well, placing as many as 40 percent of new teachers each year by some estimates.

In essence, the approach allows individuals from outside the traditional teacher education route to gain jobs in the classroom while essentially learning on the job, with ongoing courses and supervision in the first years.

The principals’ program would presumably work in a similar way, although the Christie administration did not release further details yesterday. Such alternate certification programs exist elsewhere, including in New York City, Memphis and Washington, D.C., with a push to open the field to those from management and other executive leadership careers.

Christie said in making the proposal that he wanted to expand recruitment for new school leaders, citing the ongoing research that points to the critical role that a principal plays in teacher and instructional quality.

Still, there will surely be questions. New Jersey’s alternate route for teachers has itself gone through its own growing pains in the past 20 years, with one recent study calling for greater accountability on how these teachers are trained and mentored in districts.

“Master” teacher title

The state’s Race to the Top applications first broached this proposal, essentially setting up a track that would allow exemplary teachers and principals the opportunity to move into an elite “master” category.

In that role, not only would these school leaders have greater pay under Christie’s plan, but also greater responsibilities in working with other teachers and administrators and leading improvement efforts.

As laid out in the Race to the Top bid, master teachers or principals would need to be gauged as “highly effective” in at least three straight years of evaluations, again relying on an evaluation system not yet in place.

“We intend to set a high bar for Master Teacher or Master Principals endorsement, and anticipate that only a select few teachers and school leaders will receive a Master Teacher or School Leader endorsement,” reads the Race to the Top application.

Christie said yesterday that these educators also would have a streamlined pathway for opening their own charter schools or academies within a district.

Such separate career tracks for educators are not unusual nationally, with Ohio among the states leading the way, but have typically faced resistance from unions and others worried about the competition it breeds among colleagues.

Pay by Performance vs. Seniority

This is a core principle in Christie’s reform agenda, and where the challenges grow exponentially. He is calling for legislation that would prohibit any provisions in school labor contracts that “allow for any compensation based on anything but merit.”

That stricture would essentially blow up every contract now on the books in New Jersey school districts, each with salary guides that decree a teacher move up the salary scale with each year of work and/or accumulation of academic credits or degrees.

“That should be gone,” Christie said yesterday.

Instead, Christie said teachers would see their pay tied to how well they perform under the aforementioned evaluation system, with student achievement a key component. He said an advanced degree could still earn higher pay, but it would be based on the condition the teacher has also proven himself or herself effective.

And any merit pay must be for individual teachers, he said, not schools as a whole. This is a big point of contention with the state’s teachers unions that generally oppose merit pay but have said school bonuses could be acceptable.

To be sure, this will be a major battle point in the Democratic-controlled legislature as well.

Tenure by Performance

Last and far from least, Christie seeks to redefine tenure protections for teachers, again tying both the granting of tenure and the removal of it to a teacher’s performance. This, too, would require new legislation.

“For those who don’t show they know how to teach, it shouldn’t be granted,” Christie said. “For those who are granted but don’t continue to perform, it should be taken away and the teacher shown the door.”

How this could work was also not yet defined. Several options have been under consideration, including requiring continued satisfactory teacher ratings or extending out the years needed for tenure from the current three.

Teacher unions argue that the tenure protections are required to protect teachers from arbitrary or vengeful dismissals, and they said there remains tracks to remove low-performing teachers, even if slow and costly.

Legislators like state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate education committee, have taken up this issue, and she has said she would be willing to hold hearings on ways to improve the system.

New Jersey may gain some lessons from Colorado, where they have adopted a similar plan that ties tenure closely to effectiveness. There are still due process protections for teacher

“They’ve taken it off autopilot, and rather than the onus on the principal or district to prove they are not effective, it’s up to the teacher to prove they are,” said McGuinn.