Opinion: Stay the Course on Education Reform? Fuggedaboutit

Laura Waters | April 8, 2011 | Opinion
Between extreme and incremental, there is a way to help poor students in troubled schools

New Jersey, America’s wild child, is once again acting out. While some states choose a dignified scholar to offer words of wisdom to their college graduates, we choose Snooki, the wanton star of Jersey Shore.

While some unions and governors maintain diplomatic
relations, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) leaders disseminate death threats against Gov. Chris Christie, who in turn calls them “political thugs” on national TV.

And while some states articulate plans to improve the academic lot of poor students in failing schools, they’re largely opting for an incremental strategy — a dash of accountability here, a pinch of data-driven evaluations there — with the emphasis on collaboration among stakeholders.

Jersey? Fuggedaboutit.

We dabbled in incrementalism way back when Bret Schundler was commissioner. Now we’re all about that grand, sweeping gesture, which carries with it a whole host of risks.

But read on. Maybe we can have it both ways: keep our grand gestures and still adopt a kinder, gentler approach to problem solving.

Living LIFO

First, an example of the incrementalist approach to education reform, best exemplified through the concept of LIFO, or “last in, first out.”

When local districts have to lay off teachers or other tenured staff due to budget cuts or shrinking enrollment, LIFO dictates that they must disregard teacher quality and eliminate staff members in the order of seniority. The last one hired is the first one fired.

It’s a big target for those interested in improving education in our
worst schools. No other factor in a child’s education looms as large as the quality of the teacher in front of the classroom, and no other industry makes it harder to fire ineffective employees.

A relic of the industrial era that has sculpted America’s teachers unions, LIFO was intended as a bulwark against cronyism (now effectively barred through nepotism laws) and ageism (now barred through age-discrimination laws). It’s obsolete and runs contrary to growing piles of research that show that teacher quality rises for the first few years and then plateaus.

In addition, LIFO unduly hammers poor districts, which tend to have a young, mobile and low-seniority teaching staff. In Los Angeles, for example, the ACLU has filed a civil rights class action suit against public schools because a recent set of lay-offs completely preserved teaching staff in high-income districts while decimating as much as 72 percent of staff in poor districts.

So is the best strategy the chainsaw approach, a bold elimination of LIFO? Or is change best accomplished incrementally, through a gentle pruning of past practices?

Other states are opting for the gentle approach. Changes meant to upgrade both the status and quality of the teaching force, they’ve concluded, are best accomplished in little bites, instead of bold changes to contracts and statutes.

In New Haven, for example, the much-trumpeted innovative teacher contract preserves the sway of seniority when determining lay-offs.

Was LIFO discussed? Absolutely, according to union chief Joan Devlin, and the new contract will link teacher evaluations to student growth.

But not LIFO. “We’ll get there,” she said. “But not yet.”

New York, New York

In New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has derided LIFO’s obsolescence. Yet his rhetoric fell short when Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York legislature bowed to intense union pressure (although NY is currently examining a proposal that would combine elements of seniority and student achievement in lay-off decisions).

Last year in Florida, a bill that would have put teachers on annual contracts and tied evaluations to student growth was backed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

But after the bill passed the Florida legislature, Crist vetoed it due to push-back from the Florida Education Association. Now the bill’s back in the House, where it may pass in a weaker form.

Meanwhile New Jersey, always the dilettante, has experimented with both strategies. We’re in recovery for incrementalism. We recognize that compromise is a failure of nerve and that the virtue of collaboration with stakeholders undermines the urgency of rescuing children trapped in substandard schools.

Think back to the national education reform competition called Race To The Top. Commissioner Schundler talked tough on LIFO with the leaders of NJEA, standing firm on our commitment to eliminate quality-blind lay-offs.

But a last-second (unsanctioned) huddle produced a proposal that maintained tenure rules and offered incremental changes to our public school system. Of course, we reversed course yet again, submitting the original proposal to the federal government. But that’s another story.

Times change. In February acting Commissioner Chris Cerf dismissed collaboration and produced a tenure reform proposal as sharp as a Wisconsin cheddar, including the elimination of LIFO.

Relations with the teachers unions? Not so good.

So where do we go from here? Remember this: New Jersey has a long history of distinguishing poor underperforming districts from wealthy high-performing ones, most notably through our noble experiment in education equity known as the Abbott decisions.

Let’s take those districts — or some similar list — and pilot a new system of teacher compensation and job security. Offer higher salaries (the task is more formidable than in cushier districts, right?) and implement quality-based lay-offs.

Surely there’s an acceptable metric for teacher evaluations that
combines student growth, teacher proficiency, and, yes, seniority.

Here’s an opportunity to restore amity with union leaders yet act with fortitude, maturity and urgency. We can reward our best teachers, inject the industry with much-needed professionalism and be a national model for answering the exigent needs of our poor urban students.

This is the Garden State. Let’s have it both ways.