By Katie Zeck
A package of education reform bills proposed Wednesday by Gov. Chris Christie is expected to affect the tenure of public school teachers across the state, including Rider education graduates and majors.
The package, introduced to the state legislature, would place new teachers on a probationary status until a state evaluation system deems them effective in their hired position.
Under the new system, teachers would be given one of four ratings – highly effective effective, partially effective, or ineffective.
Teachers given the two highest ratings three years in a row would be eligible for tenure. Educators rated partially effective for two years or ineffective for one year would lose their job protections and could be fired at a principal’s discretion.
Nonetheless, Rider’s Dean of Education Sharon Sherman, who testified on tenure in front of the state Legislature in December, feels that education majors will not have any problem when entering and maintaining a job in the profession.
“I am not a bit concerned about Rider education majors,” she said. “They are gaining solid preparation for teaching and we are using a sophisticated system of standards.”
According to Christie’s proposed reforms, a new evaluation system of teacher performance would be established to determine a teacher’s effectiveness and whether they are worthy of tenure. The system would be based on a combination of student test scores, classroom observations and teacher practices. The governor hopes that the package of bills will be implemented by the 2012-2013 school year.
“This is not an issue about attacking teachers,” Christie said in a speech he gave regarding the reforms in New York City last week. “Good teachers need to be encouraged to do their best and be rewarded.”
Christie feels the long-term protection from dismissal that teachers currently receive has caused them to become complacent in their positions. The current policy allows teachers to acquire tenure after successfully serving in the position for three consecutive years and being rehired for the fourth. The new evaluations would be mandatory in all districts, though the proposal would need the approval of the state legislature.
Sherman, though in favor of the tenure reforms, believes the proposed system does have its flaws.
In her opinion, the main weakness of the proposed reforms is that the system for evaluating teachers and principals is not fully developed.
“The governor assumes that we have a statewide database of student performance and a statewide database on teachers, and we don’t have that. We are years away from having that,” Sherman said.
The state currently is working on an evaluation system known as the NJ Educator Effectiveness Task Force. The program will ultimately evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness through the combination of observations, student test scores and teacher practices. From this evaluation, the educator’s status as a tenured or non-tenured teacher will be determined.
Sherman stated that she is confident in the accreditations the School of Education has received from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). The NCATE standards emphasize systematic assessment learning and promote increased accountability.
Sherman believes the combination of upholding such standards within the School of Education as well as the department’s extensive student teacher resources and in-class observations will give Rider education majors ample preparation for any system the state develops.
Many Rider education majors are in agreement with the proposed reforms, though they do not believe the state should rely on student test scores to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness.
Junior elementary education major Stephanie Corda said many factors should be considered when assessing teachers.
“I believe that all individuals should be judged on their job performance, including teachers, but education is a little different from other professions,” she said. “In education, there are so many things that hinder students’ performance that cannot necessarily be controlled or fixed by the teacher.”
Shirley Turner, associate director of Career Services a state senator and a member of the Senate’s Education Committee, also said tenure should not be based solely on test scores or the subjectivity of administration.
“Lesson preparation, making good use of prep time, taking advantage of in-service learning opportunities and contributing to the school community are only some of the other criteria that should be considered,” she said.
Chelsea Bradshaw, resident of the Student Education Association and a junior elementary education major, agrees that the contingencies of the evaluation system must be fair.
“In my opinion, Christie’s new law about tenure is both good and bad,” Bradshaw said. “I’m pleased that he is changing the tenure policy, but students’ test scores aren’t necessarily going to measure how well a teacher can teach.”
Turner is certain there will always be room for dedicated students who excel in their academic coursework and in school classrooms.
“It is important for education majors to keep in mind how they can continue their professional growth by continuing education,” she said. “Students who have a true passion for teaching, and who are prepared to work hard, show initiative and who excel in their academic course work will do well.
According to Sherman, in 1909 New Jersey became the first state to institute tenure as a way to protect teachers from the whims of autocratic principals. Getting a job as an educator often was based on political connections rather than the individual’s skill to instruct students. Teachers could be fired for speaking up and questioning the school’s educational practices. Protection from such abuses came with the enactment of tenure in New Jersey, with other states soon following.
Today, every state but Wisconsin has some sort of tenure plan. However, many now believe the tenure laws cause more problems than they solve because tenured teachers who are not performing up to par cannot be laid off. Most states are looking to overhaul their tenure systems.
Christie’s legislative plan to revoke the current tenure laws would include the establishment of merit pay in which a teacher’s pay would no longer be based on seniority and years of service, but their ability to improve student test scores. He is calling for tenure to be “granted and maintained” and hopes that it becomes something teachers strive for.
New Jersey teachers and their union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), strongly oppose the proposed reforms and feel they would greatly politicize the hiring and evaluation process.
NJEA president Barbara Keshishian said, “[Christie] just doesn’t understand teaching, the tenure process or what constitutes a sound evaluation process.”