BY TOM HESTER SR.
Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday declared war on what he considers to be underperforming public school teachers, the people he believes are most hindering the education of their students.
At a town hall meeting in Old Bridge organized by his office, Christie said he wants a teacher‘s ability to provide innovative and effective teaching and improve student achievement valued over seniority.
The governor said he wants teacher evaluations backed by with data-supported evaluations that would include information on student achievement. He said he wants to expand opportunities for what he described as great teachers to succeed and ensure students have well-prepared teachers.
Christie said he wants to reward innovative and effective teaching and put student achievement at the center of educator evaluations.Christie also said he wants to empower parents to become better advocates for quality education for their children and increase accountability in schools. The governor said he wants to engage parents in their children's education with improved access to information and better outreach and communications efforts by teachers.
"As a proud product of New Jersey's public schools, I want nothing more than to see our public education system give our children the quality education they deserve," Christie said. "Yet, if we are to be successful in our reform efforts, we must be honest about our shortcomings, candid about our failures, and open to the necessary reforms that are crucial to bringing positive change and innovation to our classrooms, no matter their zip code.
"For too long we have accepted low expectations and failure – particularly in our urban school districts – which has stolen hope from generations of New Jersey families,'' Christie said. "Today, we begin to put an end to the cycle of inaction by challenging the status quo, demanding more for our children and restoring the promise of a brighter future for every one of our communities."
The president of the New Jersey Education Association, the statewide teachers' union, Barbara Keshishian said Christie is politically grandstanding and tampering with an excellent public school system.
"As Governor Christie sets out to pursue an education agenda that has significant implications for the future of New Jersey's entire public education system, New Jersey residents and policymakers would be wise to ask whether it is an agenda based on sound educational practice, or simply another attack on New Jersey excellent public schools," Keshishian said.
Christie and the NJEA have been criticizing each other almost since the day he took office in January. While the governor may believe teacher salaries, benefits and seniority rights are hurting education, the Republican also sees the union as a major supporter of the Democratic Party and an organization he would like to bring to its knees.
Legislative Democrats can be expected to question the proposals on behalf of teachers.
Christie described his proposals as "challenging the status quo and transforming a system that has fallen short of the needs of parents and children.''
He said that despite some of the highest levels of education spending in the nation, New Jersey's public schools continue to confront a critical achievement gap that shortchanges children.
For example, the governor said, the achievement gap between wealthy and low-income 8th graders in math is nearly the same as it was 19 years ago; the gap between at-risk 4th graders and those not at-risk has remained nearly unchanged over the past 13 years.
Christie said the state's public schools have failed to prepare vast numbers of students with the critical skills required to be competitive in college or the workforce. In 2009, he said, nearly 30 percent of all 8th graders statewide lacked basic math skills.
The governor said his education proposals will bring and long overdue improvements to public education by making teacher effectiveness and student achievement the driving forces behind public policies and practices. He said the first step toward innovation in the school system means focusing on accountability.
Here is Christie's proposals to improve public elementary and high schools as described by the governor's office:
Improving Public Schools By Rewarding Effective, High-Quality Teachers and Demanding Accountability in the Classroom — Rewarding innovative, effective and high-quality teachers. New Jersey needs to attract and retain effective teachers, especially in the state's most challenging schools and districts.
Presently, teacher compensation is determined by years of service or degree and credit accumulation, neither of which accurately measures a teacher's effectiveness in the classroom. Further, many current collective bargaining contracts stand in the way of efforts to reward teachers who are getting results, pushing limitations or working in challenging environments.
Christie's agenda turns the current system inside out and finally puts effective, quality teaching ahead of seniority and lackluster results:
- Prohibiting salary schedules or compensation policies that reward seniority alone;
- Prohibiting the use of graduate degree accumulation as a basis, in and of itself, for salary increases, except in areas where graduate degrees have proven to be effective markers of improved teacher performance such as math and science;
- Granting schools and districts the flexibility to reward excellence in the classroom and to attract high-quality teachers to low-performing schools or hard-to-fill positions.
Presently, the primary way for a teacher to achieve higher compensation outside of the seniority-based salary guide is to receive graduate credits or to follow a lengthy, cumbersome path to becoming a principal or administrator. Teachers who are innovating and getting results, but wish to stay in the classroom, are given few opportunities to advance professionally. Governor Christie's Reform Agenda changes that.
Establishing New Credentials and Career Ladders. With the designations of "master teacher" and "master principal," these new credentials will provide the opportunity for highly effective teachers to utilize their skills and experience in a variety of additional ways, including mentoring, professional development of peers, or founding a charter school.
Expanding Opportunities to Receive Updated Certification. This plan will increase the number of alternate route programs for principals and update certification requirements to align with the attainment of skills needed to be an effective leader.
Demanding Accountability and Results for New Jersey's Children. The reform plan puts an end to policies that reward teachers who fail over teachers who succeed by measuring performance and paying higher salaries for it.
Improving Teacher and Leader Effectiveness with Data-Supported Evaluations. Through executive order, Christie will convene the Task Force on Teacher Effectiveness to define and evaluate teacher and leader effectiveness based on key guiding principles.
The task force will be charged with recommending a system that elevates the role of student learning in evaluations and fairly and transparently assesses teacher and principal performance.
The task force will develop a system of evaluations and definition of educator effectiveness based on multiple measurements of student learning that will comprise at least 50 percent of the evaluation.
Evaluations will be developed with broad stakeholder input so the unique needs and circumstances of schools and districts are recognized. Evaluations will provide for locally selected, state-reviewed measurements of progress that are widely recognized as relating directly to improvements in school climate, teacher effectiveness and student learning.
The task force will be given flexibility to consider additional local input of other measurements of effectiveness for use in the evaluations.
Ensuring Our Children Have Well-Prepared Teachers. Teacher preparation remains a national problem, but is especially serious in New Jersey's teacher preparation programs. A 2009 study by the well-respected National Council on Teacher Quality gave New Jersey a grade of D for teacher preparation. Elementary teachers who do not possess a minimum knowledge of the subject matter continue to receive teaching certificates.
Mandating that K-5 and P-3 grade teacher preparation programs administer tests in the science of reading and math knowledge, in addition to the Praxis test, as a requirement for teacher certification.
Empowering Parents with Access to Quality Data and Additional Outreach Efforts. Christie recognizes that through empowerment, parents can become better advocates for quality education for their children and increase accountability in our schools. The governor's agenda will empower parents to make more informed decisions about their children's education by providing greater transparency and accountability.
Engaging Families in Their Children's Education with Improved Access to Information. Christie's agenda would create greater accountability in schools by empowering parents with access to data, including student achievement in the classroom and teacher evaluations via the NJ SMART data system.
Improving Outreach and Communications Efforts to Parents and Families. Christie's agenda would increase parental involvement through greater outreach and communications efforts, including parent-focused tools such as a help-desk, website, mailings and forums. These tools would be used to educate parents about their rights, responsibilities, opportunities, options and school performance.
Pointing out that New Jersey businesses rely on public schools to provide educated employees, New Jersey Business & Industry Association President Philip Kirschner praised Christie's proposals.
"New Jersey businesses consistently report that they struggle to find workers with sufficient skills, particularly among entry-level workers,'' Kirschner said. "In NJBIA's 2006 Business Outlook Survey, only one-third of employers said they view New Jersey's high school graduates as good or excellent. Fewer than one-third reported that the verbal communication, math and science, critical thinking skills and written communication skills of their entry-level workers were good or excellent.
"Governor Christie is right to focus the issue of education on results, performance and accountability, " Kirschner said. "The ability of our public schools to prepare students to succeed in the workforce has real economic consequences for business and directly impacts New Jersey's business climate. Make no mistake, the issue of education directly impacts the quality of our workforce and the overall economy."
Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Morris) said Christie's plan lays the foundation for fixing a system that that the legislator sees has tolerated unacceptable performance and substandard results.
"Governor Christie's plan recognizes there is a drastic need for impovement in New Jersey's educational system,'' DeCroce said. '"We must acknowledge that longevity should not be the sole factor in determining a salary increase and that performance counts. Our goal is to motivate both teachers and students to perform at a high level. Rewarding teachers who are innovative, who challenge their pupils to maximize their potential and achieve results is not unfair, it is a necessity.''