New Jersey’s annual teachers conference is an outdated idea

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

Ask any New Jersey parent: it’s been a long week and a half with most school districts shuttered by Hurricane Sandy; many still remain closed. But parents got an unexpected gift when the New Jersey Education Association announced that it was cancelling its convention in Atlantic City, scheduled for November 8-9 this year.

According to the union, that’s the first time that’s happened in 158 years.

Not only did NJEA cancel the convention, but it also generously supported local districts’ desire to reclaim those two days for instruction and deserves hearty applause. But let’s push this a little further: the tragedy of Sandy is an opportunity to reconsider the wisdom of cancelling school for two days in November. 

Certainly, there are lots of benefits to an annual convention: professional development, the inspiration of camaraderie among members, networking opportunities. But there’s been much research regarding ongoing development of teacher effectiveness over the last century and a half, and it’s no longer clear that one-shot annual conventions are the ticket. 

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For example, a study last year from the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) found that “often, the professional development of teachers is disjointed in one-off courses, while teachers in TALIS reported that the most effective development is through longer programs that upgrade their qualifications or involve collaborative research into improving teaching effectiveness.” Researchers urge “smarter development of professionals” that is tailored to individual school systems.

State-wide conventions are so last-century.

In fact, New Jersey is now one of only three states in the country (Minnesota and Utah are the other two) that cancels school for two full days in order to accommodate convention schedules. Some states, Maryland for example, hold their conventions over a Friday and Saturday, saving one day of instructional time. Most other states hold conventions over a weekend or during the summer.

The Vermont branch of NEA, for example, recently decided that “that the annual convention was no longer the most effective way to reach members and provide them with their professional development needs. Attendance – at its peak in the thousands – had dropped precipitously since 2006. It was clear to the board that members no longer needed to travel to a central location for their professional development needs, and that activities such as browsing textbooks and other materials is a process done largely on the Internet.

While the timing of the convention may work for NJEA, it’s a burden for kids. November already provides many discontinuities in instruction, a bane for student learning. Let’s look at school calendars for November 2012, which has 22 available weekdays (not counting hurricane-related interruptions).

At Pemberton Public Schools in Burlington County, for example, school is cancelled for Election Day, Veteran’s Day, and Thanksgiving. Another six days are half-days for parent-teacher conferences. This is a typical calendar. Without the NJEA Convention, students are already missing the equivalent of seven instructional days. 

Finally, let’s look at the actual statute — 18A:31-32 — which serves as the justification for shutting down schools for two days in November. It was enacted in 1923, almost 90 years ago:

“Whenever any full-time teaching staff member of any board of education of any local school district or regional school district or of a county vocational school or any secretary, or office clerk applies to the board of education by which he is employed for permission to attend the annual convention of the New Jersey Education Association, such permission shall be granted for a period of not more than two days in any one year and he shall receive his whole salary for the days of actual attendance upon the sessions of such convention upon filing with the secretary of the board a certificate of such attendance signed by the executive secretary of the association.”

Schools close down for two days because, the reasoning goes, so many teachers attend the convention that it would be too expensive to hire substitutes. There’s nothing in the statute that prevents school boards from scheduling school on those days. (Actual attendance at the convention is unclear: NJEA counts vendors and NJEA staffers in its totals.) So what if boards gave it a try and only paid teachers who presented the statutorily-mandated proof of attendance? 

Even better, what if the Legislature revisited this century-old statute and made a few changes that preserved the convention, integrated new information about best practices in professional development, and protected students’ continuity of instruction?

Perhaps several representatives from each district might attend and then relay that new knowledge to colleagues. Or maybe NJEA can offer online inclusion during after-school hours, or webinars based on convention presentations that members could access at their leisure? 

Or maybe NJEA should just hold its convention during the summer or over a weekend.

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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