Christie’s Tenure Reform Remains A Work in Progress

John Mooney | April 8, 2011 | Education
The governor's speech fills in a few details, but here are three unanswered questions

Gov. Chris Christie yesterday added some details — and nuance — to his proposal for revamping teacher tenure and evaluation. He also added a few more questions about exactly what his plan will look like when it is finally written into legislation and regulation.

In a much-touted speech in New York City, hosted by the Brookings Institute, Christie was at his most conciliatory, praising teachers and inviting them to be part of the process for developing better systems for judging their peers.

He even hinted that teachers themselves might be on the evaluation teams in each district, the first time he has shown any support for peer review.

Christie’s office couldn’t offer much more information on that point afterward, which makes it one of a number of unanswered questions about a bill that has yet to be presented, months after the governor first proposed many of these reforms.

Here are three of the biggest questions:

Where exactly is the bill?

Christie’s office said a bill is “to follow,” but largely stuck to yesterday’s press release, which rehashed many of the tenets that Christie and his education commissioner, Chris Cerf, have presented before.

Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) is said to be taking the lead in the legislature as chair of the Senate education committee. But she has said her bill would not include all of Christie’s proposals. Ruiz was not talking yesterday, but a spokeswoman for the Senate Majority Office said Ruiz planned to have a bill ready for vote in June.

This may seem more shimmer than substance, but the legislature is going to be central to Christie’s plans, especially those involving any change to the state’s tenure protections. Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, said last week at a conference of New Jersey school principals that he would not support Christie’s tenure proposal as it now stood, a big obstacle given that he controls the committee’s agenda.

Will the state be mandating precisely how teachers are evaluated?

Christie spoke a little more to this yesterday, saying that local districts should be given the authority to devise their own evaluation systems, as long as they meet certain state standards.

His proposed requirements remain unchanged: half of the evaluation would be based on student performance, and half based on teacher practice as observed in the classroom. How that is defined is still to be worked out, but Christie did say yesterday that he recognized the limits of standardized tests as the sole measure of student achievement. That has been the most contentious part of his plan, and he clearly seemed intent yesterday on softening the hardest edges. He pointed out that some subjects may not be easily measured by these tests, such as music and art. He also noted that special education teachers also pose unique challenges.

How do you measure the intangibles?

This may be one of those questions that is never adequately answered, but it remains at the core of whether any of Christie’s systems will succeed.

In his speeches the governor has often mentioned the hard-to-measure qualities of teaching, how parents know who the good teachers are in a school and who the mediocre ones are — without benefit of test scores. He has also praised his own teachers, growing up, again for their intangible qualities.

Yesterday, the governor said some of this is based on how much students learn during the course of the year. He also said much of his hope for his evaluation system includes subjective measures taken through classroom observation and other tools for evaluating the teaching “craft.”

Several options were included in a task force report completed last month, which Christie has said he would use in developing his own plan. Again, the answers will be in the details, but the governor’s statements thus far have not articulated how any of this will be mandated.