This is commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

On Monday, the New Jersey Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee devoted a large part of the afternoon to public testimony on Sen. Teresa Ruiz's tenure reform bill. The word on the street is that the proposed legislation will saunter through the full Senate on Thursday and then embark on a slightly more precarious footslog through the State Assembly, possibly next week.

There seems to be some confusion about what this bill does and doesn't do, and no wonder: there's been substantial whittling over the last 18 months in order to achieve something like a consensus.

Add other aspiring tenure reform proposals to the mix — Gov. Christie's ambitious reform agenda, NJEA's superficial makeover, Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan's anorexic version — and it's a challenge to stay abreast of the current bill's language.

So here are three key points from the bill that received unanimous approval by the Senate Committee.

1. LIFO: Senator Ruiz's bill retains the practice of LIFO, or "last in, first out" i.e., employees must be laid off in the order of seniority. 

In its first permutation, the bill bravely eliminated LIFO, to the cheers of Gov. Christie and the N.J. DOE, New Jersey School Boards Association and all card-carrying education reformers. However, this measure was virulently opposed by NJEA officials.  Score one for the union: LIFO survives, although Sen. Ruiz did make repeated references to expedient compromises and noted that further consideration of LIFO will be "at the forefront when continuing discussions." 

Contextual note: N.J. is one of only 12 states that retain this practice. The others are Alaska, California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

2. Multiple measures: The bill does tie teacher evaluations to student outcomes using "multiple measures," although that's all a little vague. Previously, all teachers were rated "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory," regardless of student achievement. 

This past year the National Center on Teacher Quality noted that "New Jersey's teacher evaluations give no consideration to teacher effectiveness and include no objective measures of student performance." In fact, Gov. Christie has pushed hard for a system that bases 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation on student growth.

But in the other corner of the ring is NJEA President Barbara Keshishian, who claims that "evaluating teachers primarily on their ability to raise student test scores is bad policy, but that doesn't deter Gov. Christie." So where does the bill leave us? 

Somewhere in the middle, with at least a tip of the hat to accountability. N.J. is in the process of rolling out a teacher and principal evaluation system anyway, so any school district's inclination towards evaluation laissez-faireism is as about as anachronistic as mood rings and pet rocks.

Specifically, the bill states that standards for evaluations will include "four defined annual ratings categories for teachers, principals, assistant principals, and vice principals: ineffective, partially effective, effective, and highly effective." The rubric must (cue vagueness) "be partially based on multiple objective measures of student learning that use student growth from one year's measure to the next year's measure."

3. Due process: retained. Really, who would take it out anyway? This is New Jersey, not Baghdad. The bill dictates that two consecutive years of ineffective or partially effective ratings trigger a "charge of inefficiency, except that the superintendent upon a written finding of exceptional circumstances may defer the filing of tenure charges until after the next annual summative evaluation.

"If the employee is not rated effective or highly effective on this annual summative evaluation, the superintendent shall promptly file a charge of inefficiency."

Surely that's an improvement over the current Kafkaesque system that school boards endure when trying to fire a tenured ineffective teacher. (No wonder it rarely happens.) The timeline is specific; all tenure cases should be resolved in three months, with reasonable caps on cost and appeals.

Will the bill pass muster with the Assembly and the Senate? Will further compromises diminish its already-svelte promise? Will Gov. Christie sign it?

Stay tuned.

 


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey's public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.