Sen. Ruiz’s Long Study of Tenure Finally Coming to Fruition

John Mooney | May 20, 2011 | Education
Chairwoman of Senate education committee says she'll file her long-awaited version of tenure bill next week

Senator Ruiz
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz’s first deliberations on teacher tenure started more than a year ago, even before Gov. Chris Christie made it a centerpiece of his education reform agenda.

Since then, the governor has grabbed the issue as his own, and gone to war with the teachers unions who, in turn, have responded with their own proposals.

Ruiz (D-Essex), in the meantime, has made her plan for rewriting the tenure law one of the best-kept secrets in the Statehouse, while the chairwoman of the Senate education committee has continued to develop its details.

Now it finally looks ready. Ruiz said yesterday that she would file the bill next week, and it would likely include a few twists on the governor’s proposal.

“Everyone has been saying what took so long, but this has not been an easy task,” Ruiz said in an interview yesterday after her committee held a hearing on teacher evaluation.

In the Details

The details of Ruiz’s plan are of no small consequence, given Ruiz’s place in the Democratic leadership that rules both the Senate and Assembly. And she wasn’t giving up many of them yesterday — beyond some broad parameters that she has long discussed.

She did confirm a few places she was heading, though, including extending the time it takes a teacher to receive tenure from the current three years. She also is building in a career-long professional development system geared to both teachers who are and those who are not working up to capacity.

“If we are going to change something like this, it is very important that it is fair and balanced,” she said. “It’s not about being good or bad, but identifying needs for improvement, identifying the great teachers and identifying those who are not where they need to be.”

Still, she was coy about specific differences from the governor’s proposal, announced over the last few months and detailed in a set of bills filed this week by state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth).

Three, Two, One

Christie’s proposal calls for granting a teacher tenure after three years of positive evaluations and removing it after two years of substandard ones, or just one year of the lowest rankings of “ineffective.”

Ruiz said she hoped to be able to do a direct comparison with the governor’s proposal, but hadn’t yet. “I haven’t seen Sen. Kyrillos’ bill yet,” Ruiz said yesterday.

A main point of contention that will not be in Ruiz’s tenure bill, she said, will be the specific teacher evaluation system that was the focus of the Senate committee’s hearing yesterday.

There were few new developments, as leaders and staff of the governor’s taskforce, which helped develop the plan, testified at length about the report that was released in March.

The most disputed part of the plan remains using student test scores as a big part of the evaluation of both teachers and principals, as much as half of the overall result. Yet state officials continued to press that no one test would be the sole measure of student achievement for an educator, and they further criticized the plan for using a growth model that would measure how students progressed over time against other comparable students.

Pilot Program

In addition, they confirmed that the system would start with a pilot in the next year, with the selection of a “handful” of school districts that serve as a cross-section of the state now underway.

“We know it is terribly important we do this as soon as possible, but we also recognize this is really, really challenging work to get it right,” said Andrew Smarick, special assistant to acting Commissioner Chris Cerf.

“Hopefully in 2012-2013 we’ll be able to roll out something statewide, but this coming year will be a learning opportunity for us,” Smarick said.

The committee also heard from some critics of the plan, including a group of New Jersey educators and academics. They’ve have teamed up to propose a more holistic evaluation system, one that depends more on teacher observations and goal-setting than on strict student achievement measures.

Montgomery superintendent Earl Kim has led that effort and warned the legislators against relying too much on test scores. He added that studies have found them to be unreliable in evaluating teacher performance as much as a quarter of the time.

Kim pointed out a number of other pitfalls as well, including the state’s ever-changing tests that he said make year-to-year comparisons unreliable. Another issue: the scarcity of funds dedicated to the data systems that will stand at the center of the approach.

“It is a cumbersome process, but we only get one shot at this,” Kim said. “If we mess up, we won’t get another chance since our teachers won’t stand for it.”

Yet Ruiz was among several legislators who questioned Kim as to how long the state should wait before having a better system in place, and afterward said that she hoped to at least proceed with a system that, in turn, can be adapted and improved over time.