Neighboring States Can Help Inform New Jersey’s Tenure Debates

"Tenure" isn't in the working vocabulary of teachers in Delaware and Massachusetts, two states admired for their public schools

Barbara Keshishian, president of the New Jersey Educators Association (NJEA).
As New Jersey enters the hot zone this week in debating the merits — and demerits — of teacher tenure, an interesting fact unites two nearby states for which this debate is almost old hat.

In Delaware and Massachusetts the word “tenure” is literally stricken from the state statutes.

Not that the word alone matters.

In Delaware, “due process rights” essentially covers the same territory. In Massachusetts, they switched more than a decade ago to “professional teachers status,” a five-year renewable certificate that also affords certain job security.

But both states — each admired for its public schools — have changed the conversation on what it means to afford teachers those job protections and how to measure them, a conversation that New Jersey is beginning anew.

That conversation picks up in earnest this week, with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) yesterday unveiling a plan to streamline the process for bringing tenure charges against a teacher, reducing what many have called an onerous and expensive timeline.

The Senate Education Committee is holding its own hearing tomorrow, inviting state and national experts to speak on ways to improve the tenure process.

And, of course, much of this discussion is predicated on Gov. Chris Christie making clear his intentions on tying teachers’ pay and retention directly to how their students perform.

In the meantime, Delaware and Massachusetts afford telling lessons as to how other states have changed the way teachers are judged and protected — and won over their teachers unions, at least for now.


The First State — the land of just 19 school districts — is making a big name for itself in school reform circles, in large part thanks to its surprise finish as one of two Round I winners for federal Race to the Top funding this year.

There were many components to that win, but none more important than the state’s plans for changing how teachers are judged, including how they are granted those due process rights.

It is no coincidence that a committee appointed by Christie to devise a statewide evaluation system for New Jersey has begun its work by looking at Delaware’s Race to the Top application.

In Delaware, as in New Jersey, teachers need three years to gain due process protections — but they also must be rated as “effective” teachers for at least two of those years.

Under a statewide evaluation standard set six years ago, such rankings are assigned by a formula that looks at five components: planning, classroom environment, instruction, professional responsibilities, — and, yes — student improvement.

In its Race to the Top application, the state went further and proposed that the student improvement component be an explicit requirement for that “effective” evaluation, including the use of student test scores.

“They have inverted the presumption, and teachers have to actually demonstrate their effectiveness before they are granted tenure,” said Patrick McGuinn, a Drew University associate professor who has studied state tenure laws.

“Then you have to continue to show it, really changing the whole dynamic,” he said. “They are really on the outer edges for most states.”

In other words, teachers in Delaware must demonstrate their students’ “satisfactory growth.” But how that term is to be defined remains to be determined. A task force that includes 400 teachers from across the state has begun to develop a system to determine what exactly “satisfactory growth” means.

“What are the measures to be used, what is satisfactory growth?” asked Diane Donohue, president of the Delaware State Education Association, the teachers union. “We don’t have it all solved yet. We’re maybe just a little further along.”

Compared to their larger neighbor to the north, what allowed the Delaware union to bend on even allowing student test scores in the mix?

Donohue said it helped that the state’s teachers already had agreed to include student measures in the teacher evaluation. “It made it more palatable by already having these conversations,” she said.

And maybe in one lesson for New Jersey, collaboration helped, she said.

“There is still apprehension because we still don’t know what those measures will be,” Donohue said. “But it is less so because the teachers are part of the discussion.”


Whether it’s from the “Massachusetts Miracle” tag first coined in the 1980s or its perennial showing in state and national achievement tests, but Massachusetts has gained the reputation as the highest-performing public education system in the country.

There are many factors contributing to that heady standing, but the state’s pushes for school reforms dating back two decades — while holding the lid somewhat on property taxes — have only burnished that reputation.

Part of that reputation includes how it treats its teachers, a model held up by both the NJEA and some of its critics as an illustrative lesson for New Jersey.

As in New Jersey, school reform in Massachusetts started with a court case that forced the state to address inequities in its schools. Out of that came an omnibus education law in 1993 that set funding levels, curriculum frameworks and even created the first charter schools.

From that law also came the renewable certifications for teachers and tenure reforms. The method for dismissing a teacher was taken out of the hands of local school boards and the courts and put in the hands of outside employment arbitrators, essentially the mirror of what the NJEA proposed yesterday.

“The process grew quicker, no question about it,” said Ann Clarke, executive director of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) and its general counsel at the time. “It saved time at the local level, and it put it front of arbitrators who are experts in the employment side of the law.”

She said it didn’t lead to many more dismissal hearings, but a fairer process for both sides. “Last time I looked, it’s close to 50-50 to who wins,” she said. “And of course, that excludes the majority of cases that are settled before it reaches that.”

But that has only been the beginning. Now the state is in the midst of revamping its own evaluation system for what determines an effective teacher, a process launched through its Race to the Top application, which finished first in the second round.

In the application, the union agreed to a proposal that would include student achievement as a “significant factor” in teacher evaluations.

“Those are the two key words, and the question is what satisfies that,” said Clarke.

A task force is doing its own review as well, and the MTA is expected to come out with its proposal in the coming months. One important factor already on the table is a recognition that less than half of the Massachusetts teachers now teach classes that are subject to state’s standardized tests, likely excluding the rest from such test score measures anyway.

Nonetheless, test scores will be central in the final system, Clarke said, and the state and the union have so far agreed that they be more a validation of a teacher’s evaluation than a determinant in it.

“It has absolutely been a tough sell for our members,” she said. “But as long as it was multiple measures, and as long as the teacher observation remained the foundation of the evaluation.”

McGuinn, the Drew professor, said Massachusetts’ debates, past and present, reflect the two important ingredients to improving tenure in any state, including New Jersey.

“To the degree you can shorten the process and make it a less costly, that’s a good thing,” he said. “But if you don’t address the underlying evaluation system, it won’t make a difference. You may be changing the venue, but not the evidence to make the case.”