Christie, Cerf, and Teachers’ Union: A Fragile Peace

The administration and the NJEA aren't battling over Christie's teacher evaluation plan -- at least not yet

Fred Frangiosa’s presence was conspicuous last week when Gov. Chris Christie visited a Bergenfield middle school to promote his plans for remaking teacher evaluation statewide.

Frangiosa is president of the Bergenfield Education Association, and it is his union’s 450 teachers who will help test the new system. Bergenfield is one of 10 pilot districts for Christie’s plan.

But there was Frangiosa, sitting in Christie’s audience in a middle school classroom — not a cheerleader for the plan, by any means, but not protesting it, either.

“You can’t sign off on something if you don’t know what it is,” Frangiosa said, “and you can’t oppose it either. ”

His comments are indicative of the state of relations between Christie and the state’s dominant teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). It’s not exactly warm and fuzzy, but the thaw is unmistakable – at least where this potentially contentious plan is concerned.

Frangiosa said that was his sense too. He didn’t even get a call from the NJEA’s officers when word got out that Christie would be visiting.

“They weren’t upset,” he said. “They seemed to have lightened up on all the negative.”

A Step Back

The union’s leadership has taken a step back from its frequent criticism of a plan that would use test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation, saying it would rather take a wait and see approach at this point.

How much all this will matter as the project moves forward is yet to be seen. The pilot districts are now developing their specific plans, and the legislature is taking up the topic, too, with a hearing on teacher evaluation before the Senate education committee slated for today.

The easing of tensions seems to be going both ways. Christie said at the Bergenfield event that he would be happy to sit with the union on issues they agree on, saying this may be one of them.

And he and his acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, have gone out of their ways to preface every comment about teacher accountability with a pledge that test scores will only be one piece of the evaluation system and only for some teachers.

That’s not exactly a full peace offering — Christie went on to accuse NJEA leaders of lying to their members on another issue — but it’s as close as he’s gotten lately.
“They have a seat at the table in this,” Christie said last week. “The commissioner has reached out to include them, and he will continue to do so.”

A Speaking Engagement

Cerf plans to speak at the NJEA convention in November, a year after what may have been the low point in NJEA-Christie relations. It was last fall when Cerf’s predecessor, Rochelle Hendricks, turned down the invitation to attend, the first such rebuff by a commissioner in memory.

Still, the support of the union could prove critical as the pilot project proceeds. In Bergenfield, Frangiosa said he hopes his members are part of the process as the district develops its plan.

He said there has been some skepticism so far, not to mention outright worry about the extent that student achievement will grade a teacher.

“Some wondered why we did it,” Frangiosa said. “It probably helped that there was a little money.”

In fact, the district will receive about $95,000 for the pilot, the bulk of which will go to buying the software and hardware for a new data system to track teachers’ performance.

One of Bergenfield’s union members, Nicole Malizia has been teaching fifth grade at the Washington Elementary School for 10 years. She said a great deal has changed in the use of data in that time.

“You can really tell now if the class as a whole is making progress,” Malizia said. “And if it’s not, we can sit down and see in what we’re doing and not doing.”

She said there is always a concern about putting too much weight on how individual students do, given their varying backgrounds and abilities, and she hoped that all factors will be weighed, especially how a teacher manages the daily life of a classroom.

“If this is our goal as a state, it needs to be just one of the evaluations,” Malizia said. “It also needs to be a daily, open door policy where they see how you are doing every day.”

“Not every teacher will agree to this — it’s something different and will take some time to warm up to it,” Malizia said. “But for me, I look to give 110 percent and do the best I can, so I don’t have a fear of someone walking in and not seeing me giving the best of my ability.”

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