WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
During Governor Chris Christie's State of the State last month it was his rhetorical flourish calling for the abolition of teacher tenure that made news. Without the details, it sounded like just an escalation in Christie's running battle with the New Jersey Education Association.
But Wednesday, specifics were offered about just what a post-tenure landscape might look like in New Jersey. And while they represent a radical departure from the status quo, elements of the plan echo the spirit of reforms supported by President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan that have gotten traction in other states.
Both state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf and Christie insist their plan is not meant to break the union or harass the vast majority of Jersey teachers that have helped the state consistently achieve high marks in national rankings.
At issue, they say, is the fate of the state's more than 100,000 students, overwhelmingly kids of color trapped in 200 failing urban schools. Those stats, Christie and Cerf contend, despite billions of dollars in additional state aid since the landmark State Supreme Court case Abbott vs. Burke, which found the state had underfunded urban schools for years.
Cerf told a Princeton University audience that with Governor Christie's reform proposal tenure would "no longer be granted simply as a result of the passage of time" but on a new criteria that would be based on how well a teacher performed in the classroom.
"At least half of a teacher's evaluation would be made up of measures of student performance, such as growth on state assessments," Cerf said. The balance would come from classroom observation and a review of student work.
Under the Christie-Cerf approach, teachers would all be evaluated annually and graded in a four category ranging from highly effective to ineffective. Cerf said that would end the much less nuanced current pass/ fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading system that critics say promotes mediocrity.
Under the proposal teachers could loose tenure protection if they were evaluated as ineffective or only partially effective two years running. Those back-to-back negative assessments would not mean termination only that the teacher would lose the tenure track protection.
To get tenure, the Christie-Cerf model would require a teacher to win the effective or highly effective evaluation three years running. Cerf said that would kick in "whether at the end of her fourth year of teaching or her 14th."
Tenure traces its roots back to the turn of the century and the Progressive movement's drive to keep machine politics out of the hiring and firing of teachers.
Cerf said in its 21st Century iteration over the last decade, just 17 teachers out of a workforce of 80,000 statewide were fired for cause. But he cites surveys in which a wide majority of teachers and administrators conceded that in their school there were tenured teachers merely going through the motions.
What makes all of this particularly daunting is that this push for reform comes while the state remains in chronic fiscal crisis. Last year, Christie cut hundreds of millions of dollars from local education aid to close a $10 billion dollar budget gap. That in turn triggered teacher layoffs. That blow was softened by supplemental federal education aid. But odds are very long this new Congress will sign off on another round. And so the squeeze play.
Cerf wants administrators to be able to use whatever pink slips do appear as a way to jettison under performing teachers and not the stars of tomorrow.
"If you have an extremely effective second- or third-year really doing wonderful things for kids and [a] not effective 10th-year teacher, the third-year teacher goes and the 10th year teacher stays," Cerf said. "Nobody could make an argument that is in the best interest of children."
Steve Wollmer with the New Jersey Education Association said the Christie plan is driven merely by economics.
"He basically wants to run the schools on the cheap and one way to cover his cuts is to get rid of senior teachers at the top [of] the salary schedule and replace them with rookies at the bottom," Wollmer said.
Ultimately, Wollmer said teachers will see results on the standardized test as all that matters when it comes to keeping their job. Wollmer said the teacher association has its own reform proposal, which would make it easier to remove a teacher that merits dismissal.
New Jersey's Democratic legislative leaders who control both the assembly and senate say they will also be proposing their version of tenure reform.