As it stands now, there’s not much of a career ladder for teachers in New Jersey -- if they want to keep teaching.
Basically it comes down to two choices: Stay in the classroom and get the predictable salary bumps for years of experience -- and keep doing the same job. Or become an administrator -- and leave the classroom. Other than that there's little to no chance for added responsibility or added rewards.
But some in New Jersey are starting to rethink that situation, led by the state’s teachers union and a growing cadre of legislators in the Statehouse.
A bill () easily passed the Assembly this week with bipartisan support that would set in motion a process for creating a new class of faculty called “teacher leaders.” The new designation is largely based on added training in education leadership, professional development, and other skills.
Under the bill, these teachers would not have supervisory roles. Instead, they would serve as coordinators and facilitators for the schools -- on internal committees or school projects, or in community outreach.
“One of the big problems we have is we have really good teachers who become administrators or leave the profession altogether, because there is no place for them to go,” said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), one of the primary sponsors.
“This is for those who don’t want to leave the classroom, but still want to take a leadership role in their school and community,” she said.
The New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, has spearheaded the bill and said it would meet an important demand in the state.
“With all that schools and principals are facing, this is an opportunity to create a breeding ground of teachers who maybe don’t want to become administrators but have the skills and training to lead,” said Rosemary Knab, a research director for the NJEA.
“Whenever we have done focus groups of young teachers, they have consistently said this is something they would try and use to do more for their schools,” she said.
The bill does not call for additional pay, but would allow it to be negotiated through collective bargaining.
The idea is not a new one, with up to a dozen states or large cities creating these sorts of distinctions -- with extra pay -- for superlative teachers. Some call them "master teachers," others have the title of "distinguished teachers." Common ground: They all try to provide an extra incentive for teachers who want to keep teaching.
Newark is as close to this concept as it gets in among district schools. The new contract can award up to $12,500 in performance bonuses to teachers who prove outstanding under the new teacher evaluation system.
“It is definitely a concept that is out there, and there have been a lot of different versions put in place, some by statute, others by collective bargaining,” said Daniel Weisberg, executive vice president of The New Teacher Project in New York City.
“But it is not a wholly scientific term, so the details of how it is decided are important,” he said.
Many of the details of the new bill are still to be worked out. The first step is creating an advisory board that would help determine the specific requirements for additional training and course time. The bill only lays out that the master moniker requires 12 graduate credits -- about a third of the way to a master's degree.
It may take a while, though. Colleges that want to provide the certification program would have apply to the state to be approved. The bill calls for the advisory committee to outline the requirements within five years.
The bill has already gone through significant changes, too, with more to surely come. One amendment removed a provision that would have linked the certification to specific positions, such as mentoring or school improvement panels.
Weisberg and others have raised the question as to whether basing the step up solely on training and coursework is the right move. He said states and cities that have more success when a teachers’ accomplishments in the classroom are factored in.
“This seems more about putting in your time, but you really want a reward for those who are doing the best job in the classroom,” he said.
Weisberg said that New Jersey’s new teacher evaluation system, which establishes four different rankings for teachers -- from ineffective to highly effective -- would be a valid measure. The bill makes no mention of the evaluation system.
“What’s different now is you have a reliable system that is not just based on the whim of a principal, but on the basis of who is doing a great job,” Weisberg said.
But Knab said the bill is not meant only to reward the very highest-rated teachers, but to provide an opportunity for those who are effective in their jobs to gain new leadership skills and use them to help their schools.
“What we have seen others do is use this more as a merit pay plan, but we want to remove the barriers and open the door for anyone to pursue this possibility,” she said.