Aug 10, 2012
By Dr. David J. Sussman
Less than one day after Curiosity, America’s newest and most advanced Mars rover touched down on the red planet, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed sweeping legislation to reform the New Jersey teacher tenure system — a move that clears the way to a brighter future for education in New Jersey. The timing is appropriate: both accomplishments were once thought improbable, and both show how high one can go when their goal is to reach for the stars. Across the Hudson River, however, these monumental achievements are yet a sad reminder that for New York’s union-controlled schools, rather than reaching for the stars, any real reform can’t even get off the ground.
Before Governor Christie’s landmark, bi-partisan legislation, New Jersey teachers were granted tenure after three years on the job, without consideration to their classroom performance. Absent gross misconduct, the previous system essentially guaranteed teachers a job for life.
Governor Christie’s reforms now require student achievement and test scores to be taken into account before tenure may be granted. Strict new standards for tenure include four years in the classroom, one of which under the tutelage of a mentor, and being rated “effective” or “highly effective” for at least two years. And, a tenured teacher who fails to earn high ratings for two consecutive years, without demonstrative improvement, faces automatic revocation of tenure.
Furthermore, the $100,000 typically needed to terminate a chronically underperforming teacher is now capped at $7,500. The one weak link in the bill is the failure to eliminate “last-in, first-out” provisions, which requires layoffs to be based on seniority, not teacher excellence. While this dangerous political compromise must be corrected in the future, all things considered, the new law is a big win for New Jersey students.
Compare Governor Christie’s courageous stand to New York State’s flaccid, toothless attempt to reform teacher evaluations. Even if the effort began with a sincere push toward progress, the result is an insult to student advocates, and a gift to champions of the union’s interests.
The new system – New York’s supposed reform – does evaluate teachers. But it does so in a difficult and cumbersome manner that doesn’t give flexibility to local administrators who actually know and understand the situation, and keeps the teacher evaluations and ratings confidential to the point of intentionally rendering them useless. Under the system, a parent can’t know how a teacher performs until AFTER a student is already in the teacher’s class, and even then, a parent may only access the report of their child’s teacher and has no way of knowing how other teachers, teaching the same subject in the same school, performed, so they could know if their student has the best-quality teacher. This is ridiculous and pointless. Not being able to assess the qualities and weaknesses of a teacher before a student is assigned to his or her class, parents are left in the same take it or leave it position that every parent has always had to face.
Additionally, New York’s refusal to even begin to address the problems inherent in a tenure system that awards a job for life after only three years, without meaningful and direct review, serves the needs of the teacher’s union – one of New York’s most powerful special interests – but does not begin to address the needs of the students.
This obvious failure of New York’s leaders to enact meaningful reform is an opportunity. Gov. Christie showed us that it can be done, and New York needs to act. This is just common sense. The job of teachers is to educate our students. Just like any job, performance reviews should occur regularly and those who aren’t doing the job for which they are hired should be let go. Teachers must be evaluated on how well their students perform under their tutelage, and those who fail their students should be let go. The process should be streamlined, fair, transparent, as inexpensive as possible, and provide maximum flexibility for local administrators and school boards, ensuring that those who best know the teachers, students, and circumstances are the ones making the decisions.
After we accomplish these obvious and meaningful reforms, and get New York on par with New Jersey’s achievement, New York should make good on its status as the capital of the world and take the reforms one step further. Where Gov. Christie failed to remove last-in, first out, we in New York should take that step. Again, this is just common sense. If a district shrinks in student enrollment and needs to let teachers go, the current system requires that the most junior teachers are fired first and the most senior teachers are protected. This system doesn’t allow administrative flexibility and worst, and most nonsensically of all, it doesn’t allow the district to consider teacher quality. If a teacher must be fired, shouldn’t it be the worst performing teacher? Shouldn’t a district be able to keep its best? Any reasonable person would answer, “of course,” but this is not the policy in New York. Instead, by staying with last-in, first out, New York accepts a system that robs our administrators, and ultimately the public that directs the school through its local boards of education, of the ability to hire and retain, on merit, rather than seniority. This archaic union rule intentionally discriminates against young, energetic teachers, and ultimately, the students are the losers.
We must make these changes. The possibility of this kind of reform – the kind that will make our children better off and, in the long run, make New York a more vibrant, thriving state, by allowing our children the best education, from the best teachers – is why, after 18 years on the Lawrence Board of Education, I’m running for New York State Assembly. Come on New York, we can do this. After all, does anyone think that New Jersey can do something that New York can’t?
Dr. Sussman has been a trustee on the Lawrence District School Board for 18-years. He is the Republican candidate for New York State Assembly in the 20th A.D.
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