This op-ed originally appeared in the Star-Ledger on May 6, 2011
I began the morning of April 14 like any other day, with my two feet on the floor.
However, it was far from an ordinary day. I was going to meet with Gov. Chris Christie. The man viewed as the nemesis of teachers had invited me, along with six other New Jersey county teachers of the year, to discuss his education reform proposals.
I felt like a kid about to take on the schoolyard bully. My rush of excitement was overtaken by childhood nerves as I walked onto the campus of the College of New Jersey, our meeting place. I did not know what to expect. All I knew was that teachers wanted a seat at the table, and I had gotten one.
As the meeting began, my nerves took a back seat to the governor's charm. Was this the same man portrayed in the media as a stubborn, tongue-lashing bully? As I listened to him, I was drawn in. He was the snake charmer and I the mesmerized snake. He is truly a master at this craft.
I slowly came back to reality. Merit pay? Teacher evaluations? Tenure reform? Were his reform proposals truly what our public school systems need to provide a quality education? As the teachers around me asked insightful questions and provided feedback into each reform, I realized the danger in the governor's plans. He would abolish teacher pay scales and base salaries on a teacher's "effectiveness," measured largely by student test scores. His merit pay plan would force teachers to compete with each other, putting an end to professional collaboration. Teachers are team players, working together, sharing lessons and relying on each other's expertise and experiences. Merit pay will pit teacher against teacher, ruining the "learning community" that characterizes great public schools.
I am deeply troubled by the governor's teacher evaluation proposal. It requires 50 percent of the evaluation to be based on "multiple measures of student learning," which raised a number of questions among the teachers at our table. Our biggest concern is that it will include a major emphasis on standardized tests. Many subjects, such as the arts and physical education, cannot be tested. We already have an overemphasis on testing, and the governor's proposal would add to that. Many factors beyond a teacher's control affect student test scores, which makes us question this proposal's fairness.
Then there is tenure. Tenure does not guarantee a job for life. It does ensure due process for teachers found to be ineffective, but it is not automatically granted to teachers after three years. In fact, four in 10 new teachers never receive tenure.
Teachers, by nature, are generous people. Every day, we give our time, talent and love to our students and our profession. We would give our students the shirts off our backs if asked. But we must also be respected for our expertise.
After meeting Gov. Christie, I realized why it is so important for teachers to have an association such as the New Jersey Education Association that safeguards the dignity, professionalism and respect we have worked so hard to establish in our profession.
I also realized that his reform proposals lack a strong foundation in research by specialists in the field of education development who are true experts, not politicians, corporate types or others who have never taught in the public schools.
I appreciate that Gov. Christie took the time to hear our views, but will he listen? Educators want the lines of communication open between our government, our teachers and their union.
This day was a first step. I hope it is not the last.
Danielle Kovach, a third-grade special education teacher in Hopatcong, is the 2010-11 New Jersey Teacher of the Year.