NJEA hails process leading to tenure reform

Teachers’ union plays leading role in key proposals

Published on Friday, June 22, 2012

NJEA Executive Director Vincent E. Giordano today hailed the months-long deliberation over tenure reform as a step toward ensuring “that every teacher in every classroom has the skills and the effectiveness to bring out the very best in their students.”

“Almost two years ago, NJEA shared its vision of tenure reform with legislators and the public. We knew that in the past, in too many instances, it took too long and cost too much to dismiss an ineffective teacher.”

In addressing the often lengthy and costly dismissal appeal process embodied in the current tenure law, Giordano said the NJEA proposal to have appeals heard by arbitrators would satisfy public concerns about dismissals taking too long and costing too much.

Addressing the Assembly Budget Committee on A-3060, the Assembly version of S-1455, sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), Giordano said that the collaboration among all stakeholders in the debate exemplified “the very best that a representative government can produce when it engages in thoughtful, respectful, and open-minded discussion with people seeking a common goal.”

The committee unanimously approved the bill, an earlier version of which was approved by a 40-0 vote of the entire Senate on June 21.  It now heads for the Assembly floor on June 25, where it faces certain enactment. Once the Senate votes concurrence, it will go to Gov. Chris Christie for his signature.

Judges and courts removed

“A significant part of this legislation is its elimination of judges and courts from the appeal process,” Giordano said.  At a Dec. 7, 2010 news conference, NJEA originally proposed the idea of putting all dismissal appeals before highly qualified arbitrators.

“We learned from the experience of Massachusetts – which went to arbitration almost 20 years ago – that it was a far more expeditious and far less costly route to take,” Giordano said. 

The bill guarantees teachers facing dismissal with their right to a hearing, “which is the fair and just thing to do,” he added.  Under an earlier version of the bill, teachers could actually “lose tenure,” which meant they would have lost their right to due process.  That provision was struck from the bill at NJEA’s urging.

“The journey to reaching agreement on this legislation wasn’t always an easy one, but in the end, respectful attention to our mutual objectives and to one another prevailed,” Giordano told the committee.  “We cannot overstate the importance of doing the right thing here.  The careers of more than 120,000 educators are impacted by this legislation, as are the future hopes and aspirations of the children who attend our public schools.”

Due process preserved

“But we also knew that the public believes in the fundamental right of due process in the American system of justice – the right of individuals facing serious charges to have their cases heard by a neutral third party,” he added.  “In a word, we are talking about fairness.  If a teacher cannot or will not improve his or her performance, districts should be able to seek that teacher’s dismissal – as long as that dismissal provides fundamental fair due process rights.”

NJEA also proposed adding a fourth year to the current three-year period leading up to the granting of tenure.  “Not because four is greater than three,” Giordano said, “but because every new teacher should receive the quality mentoring and guidance that this legislation provides.”

He then shared a little-known fact, taken directly from data provided by the state Department of Education.

“What if I told you that 40 percent of graduates of medical school or law school never earned the right to practice medicine or law?” he asked.  “You would probably conclude that those professions do a remarkable job of ensuring only the best and the brightest were allowed to practice.   

“Yet it is a fact that four out of ten newly hired teachers never receive tenure in New Jersey.  Somehow, public education gets no credit for setting the bar so high,” Giordano said.  “Now, we have set the bar even higher for new teachers.  Under this legislation, tenure is now even harder to earn.”

He reminded the committee that “the vast majority of our public school teachers are dedicated, talented, hard-working people.  They chose teaching to make a meaningful contribution to the growth of our children.  It’s what drives them, and what sustains them.”

Warning on evaluations

“That is why we have another important piece of work to do,” he said.  “The foundation upon which this legislation rests is a well-conceived, comprehensive, and research-based evaluation system that will fairly measure a teacher’s abilities and performance.  Providing anything less would place this new house on a foundation of sand.”

New Jersey must adopt “the very best evaluation system possible,” Giordano insisted.  He noted that NJEA members across the state are involved in piloting a variety of systems, as the state moves to adopt regulations covering all districts.

As a final note, Giordano issued a warning to legislators:

“We must be sure to avoid the path of using standardized test scores as the determining factor in high-stakes personnel decisions,” he said. “Research overwhelmingly tells us that far too many factors beyond the control of teachers affect student learning and student test scores.”

NJEA was successful in getting language into the bill that stipulates that student test scores cannot be the “predominant” factor in a teacher’s evaluation.

Test scores, Giordano said, “should be part of a broader menu of student achievement indicators contributing to the evaluation, but by no means the deciding factor in the total evaluation of a teacher.”

The goal, he concluded, is to have an excellent evaluation system that matches up with the new tenure dismissal process.

“When you have an evaluation system which prevents any employment decisions based on faulty data, petty politics or personal whim, and you combine it with the fair dismissal process that this legislation creates, you have exceptional public policy,” he said.

“New Jersey’s teachers, parents, and students deserve nothing less.”

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