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Passing the Test?

by C.J. Mittica
Area teachers question the new methods being used to evaluate and assess our educational system

By conventional wisdom, they are heroes and saints. Selfless molders of fertile minds. The guiding hand of future generations. But talk to a teacher in South Jersey these days, and it’s clear the discourse has changed.

“We’re under attack all of the time. I don’t know how, as a teacher for 18 years, I became the enemy all of sudden.”

“It seems like we have a bad name right now—that teachers are the problem behind poor education, test scores, taxes.”

“There’s such an anti-teacher vibe out there.”

The debate over how to fix our nation’s public education system is nothing new. But never have our teachers felt as ostracized as they do right now. The entire profession in South Jersey is in a state of unease. “It’s probably the most turbulent [time] in all my years,” says Thomas Morris, a high school teacher of 27 years in Washington Township.

How, in a state that boasts the highest high school graduation rate in the nation, have things turned around so drastically? Start with a pair of ground-shifting changes initiated by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration:

• Teachers and school support staff (along with other state workers) are now required to contribute more to their pension and health care benefits. Starting this past summer, teachers had to immediately put an additional 1 percent of their salary into the pension; health care contributions will rise each of the next four years. In addition, the retirement age was extended to 65 and the government eliminated the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for future retirees.

* The State Department of Education (DOE) has launched a pilot program to change how teachers are evaluated. Half of the evaluation will be based on student academic performance (testing and student progress), while the other half will be tied to effective teacher practice (such as classroom observation). Teachers will receive one of four ratings—ineffective, partially effective, effective and highly effective.

The increased contribution rules certainly appear unpopular with area teachers—and are a significant financial hit for many, who say the rules are downright unfair because the fault doesn’t lie on them; the pension fund is only so low because the state has been shortchanging them since the Christine Todd Whitman administration.

For Greg Yordy and his wife, both teachers who live in Pitman, their household income will be cut by about $8,000. The state teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association, has filed a lawsuit against the government arguing that the elimination of the COLA is illegal.

But it’s the changes to teacher evaluations, and the potential ties to tenure and merit pay, that are particularly troublesome. Educators have many criticisms for the proposed plan, including the fact that standardized testing could account for up to 50 percent of their evaluation. How, they ask, can any measure of student performance account for home life or other factors outside the teacher’s control?

“Maybe I get the better group of kids, the ones who study and work harder, and my kids happen to do better than the person across the hall,” says Christina Dare, a chemistry and physics teacher at Delsea High School. “Well, is my pay going to be bigger?”

Plus, teachers say their primary goal is to collaborate for student success, not to create competition between teachers. “We’re in it together to educate the kids,” says Yordy, who teaches 7th and 8th grade math at Logan Elementary School. “I’m not pitting myself against the math teacher down the hall to get the better class.”

The DOE stresses the reformed evaluation system is meant to be a vehicle to improve teacher performance. (The goal is to offer personalized professional development options to teachers.) But with a standardized system in place, school districts can use that to determine who deserves tenure, or who to let go in the possibility of layoffs, which has traditionally been based on seniority.

That taps into one of education’s most enduring controversies: the notion of bad teachers with tenure protection who pass through the system. “It is not a job for life,” says Steve Wollmer, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association. “Only Supreme Court justices get a job for life in this country. Tenure is a fair dismissal procedure.”

Under that procedure, tenured teachers (who gain such status in their fourth year) go through a series of steps and a court hearing before they can be dismissed for fair reasons. However, just because the procedures exist does not mean they are often utilized. Justin Barra, DOE spokesman, says that it’s a “very, very small number” of tenured teachers who have been dismissed through that system. “While tenure does provide some due process options,” he says, “it certainly hasn’t worked.”

Some teachers leave before charges are ever filed, thus avoiding the procedure altogether. Waiting for Superman, the 2010 education reform documentary, talks about the “turkey trot” or “passing the trash”—school administrators who shuffle around their problem teachers from district to district. And as Wollmer points out, “the vast majority of [tenure dismissal cases] are settled before they ever hit the court system.” The NJEA has laid out tenure reform suggestions, including making due process less expensive and avoiding the need to go through a judge.

Under proposed legislation, new teachers or teachers without tenure will need three years in a row of “effective” or “highly effective” ratings to earn tenure; two consecutive years of “partially ineffective” or worse can cause them to lose tenure. Many teachers worry that makes it too easy to lose the career protection that tenure offers. But, according to Martin Sharofsky, teachers who are willing to improve shouldn’t be afraid of being saddled with negative ratings. “I can’t see administrators leaving teachers high and dry,” says the president of the Cherry Hill Education Association. “If they need help, [the administrators] and their colleagues are going to be there.”

Yet radically reforming tenure may erase the career protection teachers seek to stick with the profession long-term. Dr. Carol Thompson, faculty at the Rowan University College of Education, commissioned a pilot study of 89 students in the college to get their thoughts about tenure. The results? She found “strong disagreement” with the notion that tenure should be abolished. “They’re the ones who are having trouble finding the jobs,” she says about young and aspiring teachers, “and I wondered if their desire to have more experienced teachers retire would take over there … [to get] new fresh blood in there, i.e. themselves. And that didn’t happen.”

Like it or not, the Christie administration reforms are on their way. West Deptford School District is one of 10 that are testing the program this year with an eye toward implementing it statewide by next fall. “We felt this gave us an opportunity to have a voice, get our teachers involved and have some say in what this process looks like,” says Kevin Kitchenman, the superintendent of West Deptford, who later adds that he’s “excited about the possibilities” about creating a common language to improve instruction. The DOE readily admits that there will be refinements based on feedback, and it might not be as simple as an ironclad state rollout. “It might be the case that there’s still a lot of flexibility to districts in terms of what they can do and how they measure,” says Barra. “Unfortunately, it’s too early to tell.”

Any subsequent changes will hardly affect the ire that teachers carry for Christie and his administration. Yordy still has the “Open Letter to Teachers” that Christie issued before his election, the one that reads “Your pension will be protected when I am elected Governor.” Christie has been blamed for everything from running public education like a business to excessively championing charter schools. Many educators are chafed by the intrusion of politicians without education expertise. “I think education has become more of a political issue,” says Emily Capella, superintendent of the Lenape Regional High School District.

In the background of this are the constant barbs exchanged between Christie and the NJEA. The governor has repeatedly said he supports teachers but not their union—a distinction that many teachers and support staff insist cannot be made. “We basically drive the policies of the leaders,” says Camden County Council of Education Associations President Kathie Howley, speaking about the teachers, support staff and local union groups. “The leaders don’t drive the policies of the members. When they’re attacking the leadership, [teachers] feel they’re being attacked individually.”

But not every teacher espouses the union line. While they understand the NJEA works to protect the jobs of teachers, there’s a tiredness for some that the union is always the loudest voice in the room. “The teachers’ union has fought for years to build a system of protection,” says Antonio Padron, a former music teacher from Lawrence Township. “But that system has turned into a shield that no one wants to take on. And I think administrators should be willing to stand up to that and do what they think is right.”

Certainly, the Christie administration has shown no such fear. Because of that, tenured teachers are leaving in droves. According to the NJEA, about 7,000 teachers have retired or left this year, doubling the amount for a typical year. “I see more teachers leaving because they are frustrated,” Dare remarks. “They realize the amount of money they’re going to lose, and they feel the best thing to do is to get out of it before something worse happens.”

Are teachers and schools going to let the negativity fester and drive people away? Some are doing something about it. This fall, Lenape released a reality series called We Teach that showcases the daily professional lives of its teachers. “We need to do something to change that perception,” Capella says, “because that’s not the reality in the Lenape Regional High School District.” Produced by Lenape’s very own TV station (and available on iTunes), the episodes show the challenges that teachers encounter as well as the passion of those who are dedicated to their craft.

And there certainly are many such teachers—ones who wouldn’t give up their job for anything. “I look at other options, but I would not leave,” says the 48-year-old Morris. “I love doing it. It’s the greatest job in the world.” They passed up higher-paying jobs long ago. They don’t ask for a bonus or bigger salary for helping kids succeed. Many have endured budget cuts and uncertainty. After seeing their salaries slashed and careers put on the line, they want to focus on being great teachers. Instead, they lament about how things have changed.

“Now, we’re not looked at with that same type of respect,” says Sharofsky, who taught for 32 years. “We’re still expected to do the same thing, but we’ve lost that respect. And that’s a shame.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 8 (November, 2011).
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