Is teacher tenure reform possible without a big brawl?

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

I stumbled out of the opening panel Thursday night at the Yale School of Management’s seventh annual Education Leadership Conference and gazed blearily at a fellow New Jersey-ite. “Do you feel like you’ve entered an alternate universe? They’re just so, so civil,” I sputtered. Where’s the drama? How can Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education, the head of the New Haven teacher union, and a charter school leader courteously discuss the implementation of Conn.’s new teacher evaluation system, remarkably similar to New Jersey’s own pilot? Can you imagine the scene if we put NJ’s Comm. Cerf, NJEA head Barbara Keshishian, and NJ Charter School Association’s Carlos Perez in the same room? (Flak jackets recommended.)

But that was the vibe at the Yale conference. Over 700 education reform advocates scarfed down box lunches and bottled water, happily bumping elbows with luminaries such as Fordham Foundation’s Chester Finn, Louisiana State Superintendent John White, Democrats for Education Reform’s Sean Anderson, and Parent Revolution’s Ben Austin (creator of the “parent trigger” whereby 51% of a school’s parents can force a turnaround, the epitome of local control). Local celebrities included Derrell Bradford of NJ’s Better Education for Kids and Newark’s KIPP charter schools’ CFO Scott Small.

I should have felt right at home. After all, panels focused on issues dear to a New Jersey education reform advocate’s heart. But for someone accustomed to high-octane bluster, sitting in the Omni Hotel’s conference room last week was like being beamed up from the hurly-burly of Trenton’s State Street to an alternative reality of Wedgewood china and white tablecloths. Genteel discourse reigned large. Union leaders and reform advocates were all hail-fellow-well-met, oozing camaraderie and gallantry.Maybe we’ve got it all wrong here.

Connecticut and New Jersey’s new teacher evaluation and tenure reform systems are remarkably similar. Both require that evaluations incorporate elements of student growth derived from test scores, 22.5 percent in Conn. in contrast to NJ’s 15-35 percent. Teacher proficiency is graded on a four-part continuum, from ineffective to highly effective. Continued employment is contingent on continued classroom effectiveness.

No once during that opening session did a single panelist utter the word “tenure.” In fact, during the Q & A an audience member pressed the panel about whether or not there had been “resistance” to tenure reform. Hmm, replied the union leader, maybe early in the process, but not anymore.

Here, on the other side of the galactic divide, NJEA leaders are ripping through the NJ DOE’s new regulations on teacher evaluations like light sabers through newsprint. Spokesman Steve Wollmer yelped, “this is one of the most intrusive pieces of policy ever in terms of how top-down, state-controlled.” Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the architect of the legislation that enacted the same sort of system as Connecticut’s (and lots of other states) is getting cold feet regarding the percentage of test score data used for teacher evaluations. Her consternation is understandable because the NJ DOE doesn’t exactly have their data act together. (School Report Cards from last year were finally released yesterday; the DOE has acknowledged that they contain various errors.)

There are other similarities between the two states. Both Connecticut and New Jersey are currently running 10-district pilot programs to work out the kinks before a statewide roll-out. (NJ has another 19 districts enrolled in the pilot through federal grants). In the former, after a gracious suggestion from the Conn. teacher union that more time was needed to fine-tune system, the State Legislature postponed the statewide rollout for one year.

But in New Jersey it’s full-steam ahead. If Connecticut is patient, we’re impetuous. If Connecticut is incrementalist, we’re radical. If Connecticut is the well-groomed grown-up in the room, we’re the bratty kid with the ratty shirt and the drippy nose.

Is patience a virtue? Or is it virtuous to act with a sense of urgency for the kids and parents stuck in terrible schools? Can families in Camden wait while we cultivate buy-in from all stakeholders?

I vote for urgency. The inevitable flaws inherent in any relatively untested system will hurt adults, not kids. These are schools, not employment agencies. But in New Haven I saw the benefits of a dose of patience. It’s not the Jersey way, and it does create a sense of otherworldly dislocation. But in the midst of our justified rush to develop meaningful teacher evaluations, a little dose of white tablecloths and civil discourse might go a long way.

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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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