The road to semi-competent teachers in New Jersey

 (Cartoon by Rob Tornoe)

(Cartoon by Rob Tornoe)

Amid talk of bridge scandals and subpoenas in New Jersey, education is in the spotlight once again as Newark embarks on a money-saving scheme to lay off nearly 30 percent of its teachers.

Laying off that many teachers in a school district so bad it had to be taken over by the state seems like an awful idea up front, until you realize enrollment has declined a whopping 52 percent in the last 10 years. So it would be nonsensical for Cami Anderson, the superintendent of schools in Newark, not to adjust staffing levels appropriately.

So it’s not the why I’m angry about. It’s the how.

Anderson wants to emphasize teacher performance in determining layoffs, a move that has the powerful New Jersey Education Union up in arms for casting aside longevity in favor of… gasp… keeping the most effective teachers.

Again, I have no quarrel with the why. I think teacher evaluations should be part of the process of determining which teachers stay and which ones go, and I think even the most politically-biased parent would agree they want what’s best for their child’s equation. Even teachers want evaluations – at least 85 percent of them do, according to a study by the Gates Foundation. It’s the how of teacher evaluations that’s the problem.

Under a pilot program involving more than 7,300 teachers in 219 schools, teachers are being evaluated based around standardized test scores, with a couple of other factors thrown in.

This top-down policy of determining a teacher’s effectiveness (not to mention their students) to a series of numbers seems insulting at best, and dangerous to public education at worst. Not only does it narrow down our already diminished education system to essentially test prep, it places undue stress and burden on students to conform with sometimes impossible standards, considering the diverse background they come from. So much for treating teachers like the professionals they are.

This idea that teachers can be quantified and sorted seems to be the do-good response by legislators to the whisper in the air whenever conservatives get together and talk about education. Tenure is bad… teachers are lazy… getting the summertime off is wasteful… and I won’t even delve into the ridiculous debate over teaching religion in a science class.

Using strict, centralized evaluation methods to decide which teachers a considered high performers is nonsensical, not to mention the complete opposite approach I would expect “run it like a business” conservatives to take.

Let’s say for a moment I agree with the notion that running things like a business automatically makes it better. Instead of some nameless central office rating employees with the warmth of HAL-9000, doesn’t it make more sense to empower managers (in our case, principals) and allow them to make the personal decisions they think are in the best interest of the schools?

Empowering principals and holding them accountable for staffing decisions seems to make a lot of sense, and is actually happening in Newark, where nine new “renew” schools will principals will have the right to select their own teaching staffs.

There’s also the idea, overlooked in nearly every school I’ve ever been in, of giving employees (in our case, teachers) the support they need to excel. A study by Montclair State University found that school administrators in New Jersey will need to spend 35 percent more time observing teachers under the state’s new education reform law. I could be wrong, but I don’t imagine Trenton giving the district a 35 percent increase in state aid. Instead, they’ll have to mimic the underserved teachers they’re observing, who are forced to buy supplies and equipment for their own classroom, and spend long, unpaid hours preparing lesson plans and grading assignments. You know, because they’re lazy.

Personally, I get weary when legislators get involved with education. Democrats seem to beholden to the large and powerful teachers unions, and Republicans seem to despise the notion of public education all together. It reminds me of something the influential Theodore Sizer said about education: “Eventually, hierarchical bureaucracy will be totally self-validating: virtually all teachers will be semi-competent.”

I want great teachers. Engaged teachers, Empowered teachers. Respected teachers. Unfortunately, I fear our politicians are willing to settle for semi-competent. Maybe they’re spending too much time looking in the mirror.

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Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe

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