NJEA, Other Education Groups Push Own Proposals for Teacher Improvements

John Mooney | September 29, 2014 | Education
‘Taking Back the Profession’ report includes call for new tier of ‘teacher leaders’ and more mentoring

NJEA president Wendell Steinhauer presents "Take Back the Profession" report, alongside Joelle Tutela, president of the New Jersey Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
In a move that was perhaps as much political as policy, New Jersey school groups including the New Jersey Education Association ands the state’s teachers colleges have released a plan for maintaining and improving teacher quality that includes ideas both new and old, and proposals that range from likely to long shots.

The report, released this weekend and aptly titled “Taking Back the Profession,” comes at a time when New Jersey teachers face heightened attention and calls for more accountability, and pressure not only from the likes of Gov. Chris Christie but also from state and national Democratic leaders.

Trying to regain the offensive, the teachers union teamed up with the state’s association of teachers colleges and an amalgam of other groups to present the report during a day-long event Saturday that aimed to put new, greater focus on more collaborative approaches – some familiar and some new — to improve teacher quality.

The familiar proposals included a strengthening of the two-decade-old requirements for mentoring of new teachers, including providing the funding needed for two years of such a program.

The newer proposals included one calling for a new tier of “teacher leaders” in the schools, creating what would be the state’s first such hierarchy for classroom teachers.

Most immediately, the report called for a state commission to study what need to be done to improve teacher preparation in both colleges and school districts, including calls for requiring teacher-training faculty to be licensed teachers themselves.

Each proposal will certainly face obstacles – if not long odds — but the event on Saturday showed that there is interest, if not support, from some key players.

Among those in the audience at the Jamesburg conference were Peter Shulman, the state’s assistant education commissioner overseeing teacher quality; state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee; and State Board of Education President Mark Biedron.

Beyond the NJEA, key groups behind the proposals also included the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, the New Jersey Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the New Jersey Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development the New Jersey Parent Teachers Association.

Following are the four main areas in the report’s recommendations:

Teacher preparation

The event was billed as an attempt to revamp what is required in the preparation of teachers, with the unions and the state’s predominant teacher-education programs agreeing to at least take a hard look at how they train our teachers.

The main recommendation was creation of a state commission that would examine what is needed to improve those programs, from their admissions policies to how they support student-teachers.

Much attention was also given to partnerships between colleges and school districts, especially regarding opportunities and support for student teachers.

The proposal comes as debate heats up over the efficacy of university-based programs versus those that take a more streamlined approach – ranging from New Jersey’s own pioneering “alternate route” to programs like Teach for America and Relay Graduate School of Education.

Teacher induction

The first years of a teacher’s career are considered critical, with some studies finding that as many as one-half of all new teachers leave the profession within three years.

To address that “brain drain,” the report calls for a revival of the mentoring requirement first enacted under former Gov. Christie Whitman, mandating that new teachers have two years of dedicated support from an experienced teacher.

The requirement has remained in place in the ensuing years, but its implementation has been widely viewed as inconsistent, at best, and the state has reduced its funding for those mentoring teachers. The report also calls for stepped-up training of those mentors.

Professional learning

The report calls for a new emphasis on more collaborative approaches to professional development once a teacher is on the job. It’s a model, trumpeted in national discussions, that has been employed successfully in places like Finland and Singapore, where teachers have dedicated preparation time built into their days so they can work together.

The report calls for “professional learning communities” (PLCs) comprised of collaborating teachers and a revival of professional development committees that gave teachers a voice in their programs.

Such approaches will face a tough challenge in the face of new tenure and evaluation requirements perceiving by some as taking a more punitive approach.

Teacher leadership

In what might be the report’s most substantive proposal, it calls for a new level of teacher certification — “teacher leaders” viewed as being masters or at a senior level of their profession. The designation could come through a separate teacher credential with its own coursework or by way of a more flexible approach tailored to individual school districts.

But such an idea faces big obstacles, such as deciding the exact requirements for master teachers to how much extra they would be paid. While some individual school districts like Newark and Paterson have enacted the state’s first performance bonuses for teachers, there is nothing in statewide policy that provides for it.

Editor’s note: NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney NJ served as moderator of a panel of national experts who reacted to the “Taking Back the Profession” report.