Opinion: Tenure Reform, the Administration Gets It Right

Laura Waters | March 4, 2011 | Opinion
LIFO, or quality-blind layoffs, don't help teachers, they hurt our kids

Two weeks ago at Princeton University, acting education commissioner Chris Cerf announced a blueprint for teacher tenure reform. As the presentation ended and the tweedy crowd drifted out of Lewis Library, an anxious Department of Education (DOE) must have held its collective breath, waiting for the news stories that would surely incite the ire of lobbyists, union executives and advocates of local control.

Instead, barely a peep.

A frail arrow wafted in from Trenton office of the New Jersey Teachers Association (NJEA) calling the proposal “an unproven step in the wrong direction.” A friendly letter of support arrived from New Jersey School Boards Association.

From major media outlets, nary a word.

Compare this non-reaction to just last June, when then-commissioner Bret Schundler unveiled a proposal remarkably similar to the Princeton package — in reality, the original version of our second application for federal Race To The Top money. Backlash was fierce.

Just three months ago, the NJEA announced its own proposal, which deigns to slightly speed up the process by which a district can remove an ineffective teacher. It also increases union power at the bargaining table.

In light of Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana contemplating the wholesale elimination of collective bargaining rights for public employees, Cerf’s proposal appears prudent and reasonable. Centralized teacher evaluations designed by the Department of Education (DOE) fit neatly with New Jersey’s decades-long fight for educational equity. Value-added models for determining teacher effectiveness, while far from perfect, are evolving towards meaningful measures. Piles of research point towards the sine qua non of student academic growth: great teachers.

Shouldn’t continued job security depend on continued effectiveness in the classroom? And the practice of last in, first out (LIFO), or quality-blind layoffs, is fast becoming a symbol of an industry that sacrifices student achievement for adult job security.

Here’s one example of the cogency of Cerf’s proposal. New Jersey is one of only 14 states where it is illegal to consider teacher quality when making layoff decisions. This means that when a district must cut staff, the newest teachers get the pink slips. Since newer teachers are paid less, the district must lay off more teachers in order to balance its budget than if cuts were based on more student-centered factors. In tight economic times, high-poverty districts get hit hardest because their teaching force tends to be younger.

Teachers agree that LIFO hurts kids. A new report from The New Teacher Project, “The Case Against Quality-Blind Teacher Layoffs,” surveyed teachers in two large urban districts in the Midwest. A full 75 percent of respondents replied that factors besides seniority should inform decisions about staff reductions.

Yet there’s always room for improvement. Here are a few suggestions for Cerf:

  • New Jersey’s tenure reform proposal is driven, appropriately, by one principle: increasing student academic achievement. Every other factor — job security, compensation, oversight — is subsumed under this rubric. But fair’s fair. Apply that same rule of law to the DOE. Trash the gratuitous regulations and copious monitoring that overwhelm functional school districts (one example: the unwieldy Quality Single Accountability Continuum) and contribute nothing to student growth. Consider it quid pro quo for asking local school boards to hand over authority for negotiating teacher evaluations.
  • Reevaluate the role of executive county superintendents and county offices. Remember that ECS’s were originally placed within each county for the purpose of consolidating school districts. That didn’t go so well. What’s a better use of their time? Beyond facilitating shared services (an easy sell in this economic environment) how can these 21 offices contribute to student growth?
  • Be bold. Take this fine tenure proposal to the next level, home-rule be damned. Perhaps the next logical step is a statewide salary schedule adjusted for regional variations in the cost of living that embeds extra pay for teaching in high-needs districts and hard-to-fill disciplines like math and science. How much tax money would we save in administrative time and legal fees if local districts outsourced negotiations? And might that not be a baby step toward the desideratum of consolidation?
  • As long as we’re redesigning salary schedules, take a tip from the National Center on Teacher Quality and get rid of the extra money awarded to teachers with masters’ degrees. How many studies do we need to prove that this extra coursework is irrelevant to student growth? Instead, use that money for bonuses for high-performing schools or teachers. And while we’re at it, end the practice of back-loading significant salary increases late in a teacher’s career. Shouldn’t big jumps in compensation come when a teacher proves proficiency by earning tenure after three consecutive years of effectiveness?
  • In less than a year, public consensus and data-driven research has coalesced around the idea of tenure reform. What was recently anathema is now politically palatable: We all know that teachers are not interchangeable widgets on a schoolhouse assembly line, but education professionals who deserve differentiation. If our legislators can adhere to the principle of valuing our children’s academic growth above adult job security, then New Jersey can take a step towards satisfying the aspirations of both students and teachers.

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