Cerf: The new teacher tenure

PRINCETON – Acting Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf announced a complete overhaul of teacher tenure Wednesday, two weeks out from the completion of a task force report commissioned by Gov. Chris Christie to find out how exactly to evaluate teachers.

It’s a “morally reprehensible” education gap, Cerf said, and the single biggest variable in student success, by far, is the quality of the teachers: “educator effectiveness.”

It’s more important than class size, textbooks, classrooms, buildings, everything, he said.

The ways to find, reward, and retain effective teachers is five-fold, Cerf said, with three overarching principles.

The first tenet is meaningful “student learning-centered” teacher evaluations, and secondly is basing those evaluations completely on student learning.

“This doesn’t just mean test scores,” he said. It means inputs, like teacher observations and subjective evaluations of student work, and outputs, that is, student test scores.

The third and final principle is that the teacher evaluations “must inform our most important personnel decisions,” the parameters of which should be mandated in collective bargaining agreements going forward.

“It’s not perfect,” Cerf said of the new plan, but a system can only be perfected or improved upon when it exists. And no evaluation system exists in New Jersey, save the single determining factor in teacher tenure: staying upright for three years.

1. The first aspect of the plan is evaluations.

Currently, teachers are only either effective or ineffective, and few are the latter.

Fewer than two teachers per year in New Jersey – much less than 1 percent of all teachers – are found to be ineffective, Cerf said.

The new system of annual evaluation will have four categories: highly effective, effective, partially effective, or ineffective.

The evaluation will be “wholly based on student learning,” Cerf said – not time in position – and at least half made up of measures of student performance, i.e. growth or measurable improvement on state-required student assessment tests.

2. The second aspect of the plan is to change how tenure is secured.

It’s a “sound idea that morphed into something that no one can rationally defend in its current form,” Cerf said, from the Boss Tweed days when patronage frequently influenced hiring and firing and when no notice and due process was given to teachers.

Based on the new evaluation system, teachers will be given termination-proof tenure when they achieve effective or highly effective status for three straight years.

But the tenure will be removed if they are found to be at any time ineffective, or for two years straight, partially effective.

“It doesn’t mean (the teacher) loses her job,” Cerf said, just that she is no longer on a protected list.

He said the process for challenging terminations and layoffs will be changed to drastically shorten the timeframe for appeals, which many times “lasts longer than many criminal cases.”

3. The third aspect of the plan is reforming a little-known barrier to delivering an effective education: mutual consent.

Under the current system, neither a teacher nor a principal can override the placement of said teacher in a school. That decision is made at the district level, and if a teacher is not re-assigned one year after being previously displaced from a school, he or she is put on paid leave automatically.

Cerf called this forced placement – and the costly default – “one of the most pernicious practices of all.”

Under the new form, a teacher will not be placed absent mutual consent between that teacher and the receiving principal. Either can decline placement.

4. The fourth aspect of the plan is eliminating the mandated layoff practice of last-in, first-out.

Layoffs are solely based on seniority, Cerf said, which is irrational.

It is “illegal to give any consideration to whether that teacher was any good,” he said. “There’s no defense for this.”

Now, layoff decisions “must be made primarily, (but) not exclusively, on effectiveness,” he said. It will be mandatory for layoff plans to take into consideration to a large degree the evaluations of teachers affected, and – if it is the prerogative of the decision makers – seniority as well, but to a much lesser degree.

5. The fifth aspect of the plan is deciding how teacher compensation will be handled.

Merit pay, Cerf said, “has its place.”

But the lockstep pay grades currently used are based only on two things: the attainment of a college degree and years of seniority.

Both measures, he said, are completely “unmoored to student learning.”

Compensation, as it is hammered out prospectively, will be based on three things: evaluations; working in a high-needs district or in a content area with teaching shortages; and attainment of a college degree.

Cerf added a caveat to the last compensation basis, limiting it to college degrees only from institutes of higher learning that are proven to be advancing student learning. He conceded that no measuring stick for such a requirement currently exists, but once it does, it would be used.

He was non-specific on how evaluations will equate to pay: “There are a lot of ways to convert that into pay.”

What this means is an end to “lifetime job security” and other practices that stand in the way of student learning, Cerf said; it’s not anti-union or anti-teacher.

“Most of them are very, very good (teachers),” he said. “They’re saints.” And the unions are protecting against arbitrary decisions for its members, which he understands.

Cerf was asked how the state will fund the evaluations and date-based system.

“I don’t have an answer for you yet,” he said. “The greatest fiscal burden for implementing this will be at the state level, not the district level.”

“My hope is to engage a serious respectful conversation,” he said. “Are we serious or are we just mouthing slogans when we say (decisions are made) in the best interest of children?”

Cerf: The new teacher tenure