All systems are go for N.J. teacher tenure reform, now comes the serious work

Talk about group hugs: this past Monday, in a vignette difficult to imagine mere months ago, Gov. Christie, the presidents of New Jersey’s teacher unions, Sen. Teresa Ruiz, Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf, and officials from education reform groups like Democrats for Education Reform and B4K joined hands to celebrate the signing of the N.J. teacher tenure and evaluation reform bill.

This is commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Talk about group hugs: this past Monday, in a vignette difficult to imagine mere months ago, Gov. Christie, the presidents of New Jersey’s teacher unions, Sen. Teresa Ruiz, Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf, and officials from education reform groups like Democrats for Education Reform and B4K joined hands to celebrate the signing of the N.J. teacher tenure and evaluation reform bill.

From NJEA’s press release:

“We’re proud of the work we did in helping to write this law,” [NJEA President Barbara] Keshishian said.  NJEA made significant contributions to the final version of the law, which dramatically reduces the time and cost of teacher dismissal proceedings, while maintaining a strong fairness standard to guarantee teachers’ due process rights.

“The evolution of this law is a blueprint for effective public policy,” Keshishian said. “Every key stakeholder — principals and supervisors, school boards, legislators, the state Department of Education, and NJEA — worked hard to bring it over the finish line.”

Now that our kumbaya moment is over, the real work begins: implementation of TEACHNJ, Senate Bill 1455. So much depends on the N.J. Department of Education’s ability to oversee the transformation of teacher and principal evaluations. Many people believe that our system for measuring classroom and management effectiveness must evolve beyond the meaningless toggle of satisfactory-unsatisfactory designations towards meaningful assessments, tied to both student growth and best practices.

But starting a year from September? For 591 school districts?

Certainly there are legitimate concerns over whether a thorough implementation can occur over such a short timeframe. But it’s within the realm of possibility, as long as we’re braced for a few speed bumps, including procedural tweaking, disparities in districts’ abilities to transition to a new model dependent on reliable data management, unanticipated costs, and political blowback. (Diane Ravitch recently called Bill 1455 “part of the right-wing assault on the teaching profession” containing “benchmarks arbitrarily created by the state, which is eager to fire teachers and make room for teaching temps.”)

The N.J. DOE appears ready to go, and has outlined the steps to achieve statewide implementation by September 2013. One year ago the department initiated a pilot program called Excellent Educators for New Jersey and all school districts were invited to apply. Ten districts were selected for cohort 1 (Alexandria, Bergenfield, Ocean City, Monroe, Elizabeth, Red Bank, Pemberton, Secaucus, West Deptford and Woodstown-Pilegrove). Additionally, any school that received a School Improvement Grant (based on poor student achievement) was required to participate, which brought in schools from Camden, East Orange, Essex, Jersey City, Lakewood, Newark, Paterson and Roselle.

Another 10 districts (cohort 2) will begin implementation next month.

In addition, 14 districts were selected for the pilot of the principal evaluation program. For all other districts, school year 2012-2013 is a planning and preparation year, with full participation required in 2013-2014.

One of the biggest hurdles to successful implementation is the capacity and integrity of the state’s data system, NJ SMART, which has had, at times, a reputation more comparable to a Yugo than a Volvo. (In fact, one of the reasons N.J. lost the first round of Race to the Top was the inadequacy of our data system, which reviewers ranked 34th out of the 41 states that applied for federal grants.) During the legislative hearings on Bill 1455, officials from the DOE spent a fair amount of time reassuring representatives that NJ SMART would be adequately funded and fully operational in time for the roll-out.

Apparently all systems are go, and they’d better be: This is the basis for how the state plans to calculate student growth, tie that growth to teacher proficiency, and standardize districts’ abilities to employ reliable data in classroom instruction.

The participants in Monday’s group hug deserve all the celebratory warmth they can muster. Bill 1455 represents serious education reform. Now comes time for the serious work.

 

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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