Reinventing Tenure

Acting Education Commissioner Cerf tells educators, "We have done a spectacularly lousy job when it comes to teacher evaluation."

In a presentation befitting an academic symposium, acting state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday rolled out the first details in Gov. Chris Christie’s plans for overhauling teacher tenure.

Borrowing heavily from a system being launched in Colorado, Cerf described a proposal in which teachers would only receive tenure protection when they have demonstrated effective teaching for consecutive years and lose it when they don’t.

He laid out a teacher evaluation system that would use student test scores as one determinate, and said such data would ultimately be used in helping establish pay and placement, too.

His message was as much to school leaders as to teachers. “We have done a spectacularly lousy job when it comes to teacher evaluation,” he said.

By Invitation Only

Over two hours, it was an impressively choreographed show at a Princeton University lecture hall, with an accompanying panel discussion. His audience was by invitation from the across the education community, including a couple tickets for the teachers union.

But while the presentation was seamless, the challenges to Cerf’s plan came out immediately.

On the panel was the prime sponsor of the legislation that would carry forward the proposal, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex). But afterward, Ruiz she said her bill may not go quite as far as Cerf had proposed.

Cerf said that he wanted the plan to be enacted in 2011 and put in place in the 2011-2012 school year. He also acknowledged there were “very serious mountains to climb” on the data system that would make it possible to link individual teachers with student performance.

On the same day, a national group released a report on the education data systems in all 50 states. It showed New Jersey is still lagging well behind in some key pieces that will make it possible to establish that linkage. Even the state Department of Education’s own timeline indicates that this capability is at least 16 months away.

Still, one of the authors of the national report said other states have made great strides in a single year and New Jersey is among those poised to do the same.

“It’s not so much the technical but the political will over how that data is to be used,” said Elizabeth Laird of the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington, D.C., group advocating greater and better use of education data. “But once a state decides it wants to do this, it can do it.”

Cerf’s presentation was indeed as much about the politics of the moment as the details of the plan. He seized on Christie’s recession-era message that for all the money spent on public schools, there needs to be accountability for the results.

A Balanced Approach

Countering his boss’s frequent criticism of the state’s leading teachers union, Cerf said early in his presentation that his message was neither anti-union nor anti-teacher.

“Most of them in New Jersey are very, very good. They are saints,” Cerf said. “Let’s be very clear. I am not engaged in this to bash teachers or to blame teachers.”

He laid out the plan in four broad areas: tenure, evaluation, seniority and pay. And he said in each would be a system of annual evaluations in which teachers would be judged on their students’ progress, half of it on state tests and the remaining half through observations and other measures.

From there, teachers would fall into one of four categories: highly effective, effective, partially effective and ineffective.

Instead of receiving lifetime tenure after their first three years, as they do now, teachers would only be awarded tenure after demonstrating three straight years of at effective ratings. They would lose it after on year of ineffective or two of partially effective.

The teachers with the lower ratings would still have their jobs, Cerf said, but without the same protections from possible layoffs. There would be an appeals process available to teachers, but only of the process used, not the ultimate rating. It would not be subject to collective bargaining, Cerf said.

The system is very similar to one that was enacted earlier this year in Colorado, although the debate continues to exactly what measures and criteria will be used in that state.

Cerf acknowledged the same debate is likely ahead in New Jersey, where a task force appointed by the governor continues to devise the specific criteria to be used in evaluations. Its report is due March 1, and several of its members were in attendance yesterday.

“Some will say it is not a perfect system — and guilty as charged,” said Cerf, known for his casual and humble speaking style. “But we have also done a lot to make this a more balanced system.”

Political Battles

Still, now comes the hard part, and he and others acknowledged the political battles ahead could be epic. Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the chief lobbyist of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), sat in the center of the audience and said afterward that she was open to meeting with Cerf to further discuss the proposal. Schnitzer said she met him for only the first time yesterday.
But her leadership was quick to criticize.

“NJEA shares Governor Christie’s goal to improve student achievement, and we want to work with policymakers to ensure that every child has the best teachers,” said a statement from Barbara Keshishian, president of the NJEA.

“But these proposals on tenure, merit pay, and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores are problematic,” she said. “In fact, if the governor’s goal is to cultivate anxiety in the heart of every parent and every teacher in New Jersey, he has done that today. He just doesn’t understand teaching, the tenure process, or what constitutes a sound evaluation process.”

While altering the tenure system will require legislative approval, there were few legislators in the audience, with mostly their staff taking their place. Ruiz, the Essex County Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, sat on the panel discussion and will be the central player in filing the legislation. She said it should come within two weeks.

But she kept away from committing to specific details and said there is also much to do around teacher preparation, professional development and even the length of the school day. She said not everything Cerf proposed would be in her plan.

“There could be different components,” she said. “But we can all agree on the focus on one thing, the children at the desk.”

And during another tight budget year where the administration has warned school districts of possible cuts in state aid again, several school leaders — including one on the panel — said it’s difficult to have it both ways.

“You know that cutting administrators plays well with the public,” said Brian Osborne, superintendent of South Orange-Maplewood schools. “But the ratio of administrators to teachers is going to be important to the quality of this work.”

In one of the lighter moments of the day, Cerf answered another question about cost that time was up and the session would have to end.

“Fair enough,” he resumed. “It’s the story of your life. Someone gives you a great idea from Trenton or Washington, but doesn’t give you the funds. I don’t have the answer. I hear you loud and clear.”