New Jersey Tackles Teacher Tenure

Published March 28, 2012

Legislation under consideration in New Jersey would require annual evaluations and evidence of student achievement growth for a teacher to earn tenure and would make it easier to fire ineffective teachers.

Senate Bill 1455 resembles reforms proposed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, including requiring student achievement constitute 50 percent of teacher evaluations.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, as a union rep, from the principal’s association, or a teacher,” said state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the bill sponsor. “We’re all talking about what needs to get done to ensure we have great student outcomes.”

New Jersey has earned an overall grade of D+ from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).  

“Ninety-five percent of our teachers are being graded as proficient,” testified Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), “but only 40 percent of students receive a similar grade.”

The bill’s first hearing before the Senate Education Committee, which Ruiz chairs, was held March 5.

Objective Measures of Quality
Making student achievement an explicit component of teacher evaluations and tenure decisions is a leading NCTQ recommendation. Most states, including New Jersey, base tenure on time served—typically three years—without considering student performance. Eight states require five years before a teacher can be tenured, and Florida, Idaho, and Rhode Island have effectively ended teacher tenure altogether, awarding only annual contracts to new teachers.

The Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey (TeachNJ) Act, would require principals to rate teachers ineffective, partially effective, effective, or highly effective based on multiple objective measures including student learning growth. Because just 20 percent of subjects are currently tested, under TeachNJ districts would develop their own assessments for other subjects.

Under the bill, a newly hired teacher would be eligible for tenure after four or more years on the job. New teachers would complete a first-year mentorship. Annual evaluations would begin at the end of their second year. They would have to receive three consecutive effective or highly effective evaluations to be eligible for tenure. After two years of partially effective or ineffective ratings, teachers could be fired, and they could not appeal their ratings.

Ending ‘Last In, First Out’
Unions argue these changes will make it easier for school districts to fire more expensive veteran teachers.

But TeachNJ supporters say ending “last-in, first-out” policies when layoffs are necessary will base staffing decisions on teacher talent, not time served.

“Research shows that great teaching not only increases student learning, it benefits a child for the rest of his or her life,” said Derrell Bradford, executive director of Better Education for New Jersey Kids. “Great teaching and teachers matter, and every classroom should have one.”

Grandfathering Draws Fire
Exempting teachers tenured before the bill’s effective date in 2014 is drawing the most criticism from opponents and supporters alike.

“[The grandfather clause] was intended as a compromise,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association. “But it’s almost unworkable, where some employees work under one set of rules, and others under another.”

Clashes between teachers unions and the Christie administration over tenure weakened

New Jersey’s grant application for federal Race to the Top funding, and tenure remains a point of contention.

“It is no comfort to a parent of a child with a bad first-grade teacher in front of them to know that five, ten, or twenty years down the road a new teacher will be held to a different standard,” said  Jerry Cantrell, president of the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey. “Improving upon the bill by not grandfathering in teachers is the most important part.”

Ruiz said she has “heard from a lot of people urging that [the bill] apply retroactively” and is considering amending the bill to address that and other concerns aired in the hearings.

“This has been a long and arduous journey here in New Jersey,” said Cantrell. “So there is cause for hope and concern over this.”


Image by UMDMJ School of Nursing.