Four challenges that face New Jersey’s public school system

New Jersey’s tenure reform bill is now approved by the State Legislature and should be graced by Gov. Christie’s signature soon, his protestations to the contrary.

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

New Jersey’s tenure reform bill is now approved by the State Legislature and should be graced by Gov. Christie’s signature soon, his protestations to the contrary.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz, architect of the bill and doula of the lengthy labor of collaboration, was hailed by Sen. Loretta Weinberg as a miracle worker — “We’re going to next send you to the Middle East to take on the peace process,” Weinberg said — and there’s an air of celebration in NJEA offices and local reform organizations, both of whom claim victory.

It’s great to have a tenure reform bill infused with important principles like staff accountability, limits on tenure rights, and the preservation of due process.

Now comes the hard part: implementation. What will it take to make this bill work?

Here’s four challenges that face New Jersey’s public school system as it implements new procedures under a harsh spotlight. None of these challenges are insurmountable, but all will require careful oversight and strong leadership.

Upgrade the DOE Database: NJ’s Department of Education must swiftly complete the task of upgrading NJSMART, the state data warehouse which collates student achievement levels, identification systems, and school performance levels. Helpfully, earlier this month N.J. received a $5 million grant from the feds. If we’re going to tie teacher evaluations to student growth, then we need a trustworthy database.

Refine Teacher Evaluation Rubric: Last year, the DOE rolled out a pilot program of value-added teacher evaluations under the heading of Excellent Educators for New Jersey. Participation was limited to 11 districts (including Newark), plus 20 low-performing schools that received federal grants. Original plans called for statewide roll-out in 2012-2013; that’s been pushed back a year until the kinks are worked out, although all districts will tiptoe towards the new system in September. Districts are also allowed to use their own templates, as long as they conform to the minimum standards in the bill, which include evaluating teachers based on “multiple objective measures of student learning.”

For many decades, school districts and their local bargaining units have controlled teacher evaluation templates. This shift — in process, in accountability, in culture — is one of the cornerstones of the Ruiz bill. While there was a last minute concession to NJEA/Assemblyman Diegnan that watered down the language a bit so that student test scores “shall not be the predominant factor in the overall evaluation of the teacher,” implementation will require that stakeholders accept the process’s fairness and reliability. Data, like everything else, is susceptible to politics.

Strictly Oversee Arbiter Panels: In the past, the case of a teacher charged with ineffectiveness (a rare instance indeed) was referred to an Administrative Law Judge, an expensive and lengthy process. Now, cases will be heard by arbiters selected from a panel of 25, who will operate under strict timelines and fee caps. NJSBA resents that teacher unions will have more sway in choosing arbiters than school boards (it says that there is “almost a two-out-of-three chance that a union-identified arbiter will hear a tenure case”) and will watch outcomes carefully. The DOE must be rigid about adhering to a newly-legislated process that may be open to special pleaders. First impressions are important: this has to work as promised from the get-go.

Provide Adequate Support to Districts to Implement School Improvement Panels: under the bill, oversight of teacher evaluations is handed over to these new panels, one per school, which comprise the school principal (or his/her designee), an assistant principal, and a teacher. These panels have much responsibility: evaluating staff, mentoring new and struggling teachers, and providing differentiated professional development opportunities so that everyone can increase classroom effectiveness and student growth. With money tight and resources thin, some school districts will struggle with yet another layer of state-mandated procedures while others will coast forward effortlessly.

In the end, this legislation is putting its money on leadership: from professional educators, all-important principals, school boards and superintendents who understand how much is at stake, and union officials who bravely stepped into this century and brought their best game. Passing the legislation is a victory, but now the real work begins.


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.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal