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New law makes it easier to fire NJ teachers

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Written by: Mariana Braz and Laymon Flack

All K-12 teachers and students at public schools in New Jersey will be affected by the new tenure law signed by Governor Chris Christie on August 6. The Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey Act (TEACHNJ) is intended to upgrade the oldest tenure law in the country. The state’s teachers’ union –the NJEA– has endorsed the new model.

Tenure is a status that teachers have traditionally earned from having performed duties well for a certain number of years. Receiving tenure means that the teacher cannot be fired without due process. Under Governor Christie’s new law, longevity in teaching is not the most significant factor in awarding tenure.

According to the NJEETF (New Jersey Educator Effectiveness Task Force) Interim Report , Sources used to evaluate teachers –other than their students’ test scores– will include annual surveys to determine a school’s “learning climate,” observations of faculty made by administrators at least twice a year, and evaluations of faculty portfolios demonstrating how they implemented standards to aid in student success.

Dr. Samuel Stewart, Executive Superintendent of Schools of Mercer County, explained that each district has its own way of evaluating teachers, but soon every district will follow the same protocol stipulated by the Department of Education.

Ten districts were selected by the Department of Education to try out the new system before its adoption statewide next year. Dr. Stewart explained the reason none of Mercer County districts are part of the pilot is because they did not apply. He also said that “they all are complying with new law, they are just not in the pilot”.

Under the current system, 60 percent of student achievement is attributed to the teacher and principal, 25 percent of that is directly from the principal. Under the new system, 50 percent of the responsibility would be on on the teachers and the other 50 percent on the student.

Dottie Depalma, an English teacher at Steinert High School in Hamilton, thinks this particular change doesn’t make a lot of sense for several reasons. “First, if you teach a subject that is not traditionally tested on a wide scale, which is basically any subject that is not English or math, how will achievement be determined? Second, not all students learn the same way. What if the progression is from an F to a D? Will that be enough?”

Christine Forte, a Math teacher at Grover Cleveland Middle School in Caldwell, is also somewhat wary of the new law. She says that putting 50 percent of the evaluation on student achievement simply provides a new way for the government to blame the teachers for the failure of the system. She calls it a “big can of worms.”

“Truth is, evaluating students is a for-profit business, but teaching them is non-profit, paid for with taxes. It’s just one more way to sold the public on an idea that will cost them more in taxes, without telling them that’s what is happening,” said Forte.

Mercer Professor of Education Elizabeth DeGiorgio, counselor for Kappa Delta Pi and co-advisor for the Future Teachers Club, said she believes the new system will give teachers the support they need to do their best in class.

“I cannot say with 100 percent certainty that it will benefit the educational system. However, I do believe it will help improve teaching practice. I think evaluations will be able to identify ineffective teachers,” DeGiorgio said.

Governor Christie has said that the educational reform is focused on student success and teacher effectiveness in order to improve public education. “We are taking a huge leap forward in providing a quality education and real opportunity to every student in New Jersey. But our work to develop laws that put students first is not done,” Christie said in a recent press release.

The reform was based on the New Jersey Educator Effectiveness Task Force Report released in March 2010.

When asked how this will effect teacher performance , Professor DeGiorgio said that everything has to be considered in order to evaluate a teacher: “the resources available, student diversity, variation in academic levels, special needs, parental support, and environmental design. So when looking at test scores you can’t blame it all on teachers.”

TEACHNJ makes three major changes on the old tenure law. The first modification is related to the years of experience. The new system requires that teachers be evaluated for their efficiency and not how long they have been teaching.

Although Dottie DePalma of Steinert is skeptical of the emphasis the new law places on student test scores, she is more accepting of the law’s emphasis on evaluations as a path to tenure rather than seniority being the path.

“In the rest of the working world, years of experience only count if you are doing a good job. If you’re doing a poor job, no amount of work experience is going to get you a raise. Performance is performance; either you are doing the job or not,” says DePalma.

By the old system, ineffective teachers who had tenure sometimes faced penalties for academic ineffectiveness but hardly any of them were ever dismissed from their duties for poor teaching. According to the Department of Education of NJ website, less than 20 teachers have lost tenure for inefficiency over the past three years. Up to now the process of firing a teacher who has tenure has been lengthy and complex and could cost more than $100,000. The new law streamlines the process to no more than 105 days and $7,500.

Although various teachers’ union representatives have expressed concern over the ease with which teachers can now be stripped of their tenure, few have objected to the aspect of the new law that ensures that teachers who get poor evaluations will receive assistance to improve their teaching.

Professor DeGiorgio, explains that the new system will give teachers a chance to improve their skills and get a better evaluation next time.

“Once an ineffective teacher is identified, that teacher will be provided the opportunity for professional development and be supported by their principal,” DeGiorgio said.

Dr. Stewart, Mercer’s Executive Superintendent, sees the new law as a tool for student success, saying: “Engaging students and having students accept responsibility are two keys in raising achievement levels.”

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