Christie pushes to end teacher tenure

January 22, 2011 9:22:53 AM PST
Gov. Chris Christie, intent on overhauling parts of New Jersey's education system, is making a priority of eliminating lifetime tenure so it's easier to fire teachers whose students don't do well.

The state's main teachers union and some education experts are pushing back, saying there would be major flaws if a performance-based teacher evaluation system were used to sort out which teachers to keep - and which not to - if tenure is eliminated.

Christie isn't the first to propose a tenure overhaul. For instance, New York City has proposed linking tenure to student achievement, and Idaho wants to offer two-year contracts to new teachers in lieu of tenure.

But the Garden State's Republican powerhouse has become a force nationally. After spending his first year in office tangling with teachers over pay and health benefits, he could bring even more attention to a debate that's been brewing nationally between the educational establishment and those who seek major changes.

On Wednesday, the two sides laid out their cases at separate forums.

In Trenton, Christie hosted a screening of "Waiting for Superman," a documentary film on the failings of American public education that has become a rallying point for school reform groups.

"When your children were in elementary school, middle school and high school, did you have a hard time figuring out who the good teachers were? No, not for a minute," Christie said. "You went to back-to-school night, you had your inkling whether you had a good teacher or a not so good one. Your children came home after the first few weeks and you had an inkling from listening to them whether they had a good one or a bad one. You saw their report cards, you saw their test scores, you had a good idea whether there was a good teacher or a bad teacher in the front of the room."

New Jersey public school teachers are granted tenure after three successful years on the job. Christie says that amounts to lifetime job protection. Union officials say it provides due process.

Teachers with tenure can be fired for many reasons, but it doesn't happen often and it doesn't happen quickly.

In 2008, there were 35 education tenure challenges for school employees. Firing a teacher takes about nine months on average. The teachers union, responding to pressure from Christie, has put forward a proposal it says would shorten that to about three months.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said the teachers union would vigorously fight an attempt to implement a system in which good teachers could be arbitrarily fired.

The union advocates a more rigorous evaluation system for beginning teachers so "if you can't cut it, you don't get" tenure. He said teacher evaluations should be instructive, not punitive; designed to enhance professional skills, not root out bad teachers.

Meanwhile, representatives of the state's education establishment - from the main teachers union to Rutgers University's Graduate School of Education - gathered at the Princeton campus of Educational Testing Service to talk about challenges in evaluating teachers. Education researchers say test scores were not intended to measure a teacher's worth.

The governor has hinted that he would like to offer the state's 120,000 public and charter school teachers renewable five-year contracts and decide which to keep based largely on how well their students perform. He has deferred specifics on teacher evaluations to a task force assigned to work out the details before reporting back next month. His proposals include making it easier to fire bad teachers and developing a merit-pay system for top achievers.

Educators meeting in Princeton on Wednesday at a symposium on standardized testing took issue with the national movement to use student test scores to evaluate teachers.

So-called "value-added" tests measure students at the beginning and end of the school year to gauge what a student learned using their past performance as a baseline.

Detractors say they place too much emphasis on test-score teaching, and can get skewed results based on many variables.

The so-called "value-added" approach shouldn't be used as a major criterion to measure teacher effectiveness because it is not that precise, said Sean Corcoran, an assistant professor of educational economics at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Such tests measure student progress but don't consider classroom dynamics or outside influences, such as neighborhood factors, parental involvement and economics, Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

Rothstein said using test scores to grade teachers is "a cheap gimmick" politicians use instead of coming up with a comprehensive evaluation plan that costs more money and takes more time.

Relying heavily on test scores to assess teachers also can harm students, the experts said. Teachers whose promotions or demotions are based primarily on student achievement have more incentive to focus solely on topics appearing on standardized tests. Arts and gym teachers, meanwhile, could be linked to test results having nothing to do with the subjects they teach.

The state teachers union, with whom Christie has infamously tangled through first year, was more blunt in its assessment.

"Every decision the governor makes is a political decision," said Steven Baker, a spokesman for the union, the New Jersey Education Association. "This isn't about the kids. If the governor was concerned about them, he wouldn't have cut $1.3 billion in public education, he wouldn't have spent a year trashing those in public education."

Baker said the union needs the protection of tenure laws to ensure teachers are not fired without cause. Without such protections, public education - and public school teachers - can be held hostage to the whims of politicians, he said.

But in New Jersey, Christie's finding a receptive political environment when it comes to overhauling aspects of public education.

Some urban lawmakers - almost all members of the Democratic majority in both chambers of the state Legislature - are fed up with failing schools and are likely to go along, as are Republicans who side with the governor.