Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I Went to Trenton to Govern, But All I Got Was This Lousy $38 Million

Governor Christie has had some major legislative accomplishments over the past two years including a 2% cap on property taxes and a public worker pension and benefits overhaul. Mind you, these laws have not necessarily made life better for New Jerseyans, as taxes have still risen and thousands of experienced public workers have either retired, fled or have been laid off because of them.

The past six weeks, though, have been another story for the guv'nor.

Despite his general popularity, the Republicans actually lost seats in the November legislative elections. Now Christie will need to rely even more heavily on the Democratic majority in the legislature and the Democratic power brokers in Essex and Camden Counties. Add in the disdain that Senate President Steven Sweeney has for Christie and you have a recipe for gridlock sprinkled with a tablespoon of revenge.

Then, the general consensus was that the lame duck legislative session was going to be one of the most active in years, with bills flying around State Street on teacher tenure and evaluation, property taxes, jobs, budget cuts and patronage. What's happened? Nada. Almost every issue was pushed to the formal session that begins in early January, and won't probably get any steam until the Governor's State of the State message in the middle of the month.

And in the spirit of the holidays, Christie picked a fight with Senator, and former Governor, Richard Codey over the permanent appointment of Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf, accusing Codey of (gasp!) feeding information to reporters. Christie canceled Codey's security detail and fired Codey's cousin from the Port Authority board. That's politics through and through and shows that Christie will never be the warm, fuzzy leader he sometimes pretends to be.

But the true state of the Governor's clout was uncovered when New Jersey was actually awarded $38 million dollars in Race to the Top funds by the Obama Administration so it could implement a speculative teacher evaluation system based on student standardized test scores. Getting money should be a positive, but this award only dredged up the previous failure to even qualify for $400 million dollars in education funds because of the Governor's attitude towards the New Jersey Education Association. Not only did it cost the state money, it also cost Commissioner of Education Brett Schundler his job and showed that Christie would blame everyone but his leadership for the error. It's a pattern that he's repeated in every misstep since, and it's one reason why he would not make a good president.

He's ending the year by essentially becoming Mitt Romney's pit bull and possible vice-presidential running mate. Granted, he did only say that he would keep the door open, but that will only serve as a distraction in the coming year, as his flirtation with the presidency proved throughout the fall, because every time he doesn't get what he wants, the media will remind us all that he's got his eye on the national ticket. The Governor should just say no this time around and focus on the state.

It's still very possible that Christie will get some of his reforms through the legislature, but many in the state are tired of his outbursts and outlandish statements. Prosecutors like him are convinced that they are always right and that they have the ultimate truth on their side, so why compromise? We need to remember that the next time one runs for statewide office.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

We Hardly Newt Ye!

That was close. And scary. The idea that Newt Gingrich might actually win the GOP presidential nomination sent shivers down the spines of enough Republicans that they actually came to their senses this week and  began to support Ron Paul in the Iowa caucus polls. As for the national trends, it looks like Mitt Romney is the betting favorite on Internet sites.

The Gingrich flirtation lasted only as long as voters knew little about what he might do in office. His tirades against the federal judiciary might play well with the ultra-conservatives, but they seem to be non-starters among the more moderate voters who will come out in later primary states. Also, his lack of organization is showing, but that shouldn't come as a complete surprise. Gingrich never seemed to be in the race for anything other than to get his ideas in the marketplace. He succeeded. Now there's a 50% off sticker on them and they're not long for the discontinued bin.

Republican voters have sampled all of the candidates over the course of the last few months and they seem to be coalescing around Romney, despite conservative suspicion that he's not fully committed to their causes. There's a good reason for this; he's not, but he's the only electable candidate in the field. So that leaves us with a volatile race in Iowa with any of Romney, Paul (my favorite to pull out a win), Bachmann and Perry able to cobble together enough caucus voters to move on to the next set of states. Rick Santorum is getting a little love this week from evangelicals, but that will all come to naught after Iowa.

Then the serious race will begin in earnest. Depending upon what happens in the next few days, Romney will have to defend Republican obstruction that led to the end of the payroll tax cut, or he'll have to run against it as flawed policy, despite the cut being popular among voters and economists. He'll also have to harness the Tea Party faction that doesn't want to compromise on anything, and is losing support, even with Republicans. Add on the fact that President Obama's poll numbers are improving, and Mitt suddenly has a more daunting task ahead of him than he did in October (did he just announce his first major policy decision?).

But that's all in the future. Right now, we should be thanking Newt Gingrich for a spirited campaign that ultimately showed his best days to be behind him. His rise and fall was swifter than Herman Cain's and the reality of a Gingrich presidency was always going to present problems in a world that's moved beyond the 1990s. Perhaps Romney can find room for Newt in his administration as, say, ambassador to Libya?

For more spirited debate, go to www.facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Technology, Democracy and the Revolution

The Internet wants us to grow up.

So far, we've used it to play games, go shopping, follow our friends (and strangers), work more efficiently, and play games. Fun activities to be sure, but now it's time for the Internet to take us into the serious future where people really will be replaced by machines and the machines will know more about us than we are comfortable disclosing to actual humans.

It will be scary for a while, but then, most revolutionary change is. Follow me.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Mitt Is It

I've said it before. It is now painfully apparent that Republican primary voters have cycled through almost every candidate who's running for the nomination, and they will eventually settle on Mitt. Yes, it's possible for Jon Huntsman to have his bump, although even if he doubled his support he'd only be polling at 4%. Rick Santorum? Again, it's possible, but just how is he different from Rick Perry? Or, perhaps more importantly, how is he the same as Rick Perry? Here's how: Both will lose.

And Mitt? Well, he just picked up the endorsement of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, which solidifies his position in an important southern state that votes in January, even though Haley's support is causing her problems with the local Tea Party voters.

But how do we really know that Romney is heading towards the nomination?

Intrade. That's right. The online trading market and prediction website showed that Mitt gained almost 10 points overnight, while Newt's number plummeted from 38 to18. Note to Newt: When the capitalists are bailing on you, it's time to lobby for an ambassadorship to an island with hefty security. Even worse, he's now behind Herman Cain(!). Ouch. Of course, these numbers could change tomorrow, but I wouldn't expect a dramatic turnaround for any of the candidates in the field.

Romney might not win the Iowa caucuses and it won't hurt him unless he falls to fourth place. He'll win in New Hampshire, and by then a few of the candidates will have dropped out and thrown their support behind "the eventual nominee'" who will be Romney. Conservatives will have to either grin and bear him or stay home on election day, but that will only help Barack Obama, and we all know that helping the president is just not in the GOP's DNA.

It might be February before Gingrich's campaign issues a DNR order, but that day will come, sooner rather than later. Then the real campaign can begin.

For more pithy science references in political analysis, visit www.facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Class and the Classroom: Does Money Matter?

Why does it seem that money matters everywhere but in public education? Corporations spend lavishly to recruit the best workers and provide the most luxurious perks. The best places to live are in the wealthier suburbs that can pay for clean, safe streets. High end cars have the latest gadgetry and safety features.

But public education? In the most important industry we have to promote learning, culture, and democracy we race to the bottom to find out who can spend the least and cut the most, then lament that we don't get the best people to teach or the highest test scores in the world. Politicians want to break teacher's unions under the pretense of saving money and are working to create evaluation systems that will use bad data to punish educators and pay them less. And the biggest fraud is the old saw that schools can ameliorate the effects of poverty and raise all students to above average academic levels, a claim that any mathematics teacher will tell you defies the bell curve.

This particular lie is uncovered in the opinion piece, Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It? by Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske in Monday's New York Times.  The findings should not surprise anyone: 

The correlation has been abundantly documented, notably by the famous Coleman Report in 1966. New research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University traces the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families over the last 50 years and finds that it now far exceeds the gap between white and black students. 

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates. 

International research tells the same story. Results of the 2009 reading tests conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment show that, among 15-year-olds in the United States and the 13 countries whose students outperformed ours, students with lower economic and social status had far lower test scores than their more advantaged counterparts within every country. Can anyone credibly believe that the mediocre overall performance of American students on international tests is unrelated to the fact that one-fifth of American children live in poverty? 

George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act was meant to address this correlation, but it only showed how faulty the logic was behind the law. 

As we are now seeing, requiring all schools to meet the same high standards for all students, regardless of family background, will inevitably lead either to large numbers of failing schools or to a dramatic lowering of state standards. Both serve to discredit the public education system and lend support to arguments that the system is failing and needs fundamental change, like privatization.

We've wasted billions of dollars trying to achieve results using the wrong measurements and the wrong strategies, from relying on standardized tests to using scripted curricula to cutting money for vocational and technical training for students who do not excel at academic subjects. Then came the devastating budget cuts precipitated by the recession and the rise of Republican governors who don't understand that competition within schools does little other than to destroy the collaborative atmosphere that enables successful schools to thrive.

What works?   

Large bodies of research have shown how poor health and nutrition inhibit child development and learning and, conversely, how high-quality early childhood and preschool education programs can enhance them. We understand the importance of early exposure to rich language on future cognitive development. We know that low-income students experience greater learning loss during the summer when their more privileged peers are enjoying travel and other enriching activities. 

Since they can’t take on poverty itself, education policy makers should try to provide poor students with the social support and experiences that middle-class students enjoy as a matter of course. 

Of course, you can't replicate the middle class experiences by implementing policies that hurt the existing middle class while protecting the wealthy, but that's a minor detail.

As always, though, there's more.

Another article sheds more light on the relationship between quality education and money in a less obvious realm; the military. That's right. According to Military Children Stay a Step Ahead of Public School Students by Michael Winerip, children in public schools on military bases are performing better than the general public school population on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and are narrowing the income gap at the same time. 

At the military base schools, 39 percent of fourth graders were scored as proficient in reading, compared with 32 percent of all public school students. 

Even more impressive, the achievement gap between black and white students continues to be much smaller at military base schools and is shrinking faster than at public schools. 

On the NAEP reading test, black fourth graders in public schools scored an average of 205 out of 500, compared with a 231 score for white public school students, a 26-point gap. Black fourth graders at the military base schools averaged 222 in reading, compared with 233 for whites, an 11-point gap.

In fact, the black fourth graders at the military base schools scored better in reading than public school students as a whole, whose average score was 221. 

Now, I'm not saying that a 39% reading proficiency rate is something to crow about, and there is the matter that military people must be high school graduates and pass an entrance exam to get into the service, but the results do show an improvement over other public school children. And they succeed without doing most of the things that busybody state governments want their schools to accomplish. Military base schools do not use standardized tests to evaluate teachers, but only to identify students' strengths and weaknesses, and the principal can decide how many times to observe their teachers. Average class size is lower than regular public schools and there seems to be a positive relationship between the teacher's union and the administration.

But the real lesson is that economically and academically, the students get the support from home that they need in order to succeed. All of the families have health care, housing and necessities because they serve in the military, and at least one parent in the household has a job. These are the basic middle class advantages that are missing from many communities across the country, but ones that politicians are ignoring in their race to blame teachers and demonize their negotiated benefits. They are also what Ladd and Fiske refer to as the absolute minimum that less fortunate students need to compete with upper middle class schools.

Excellent public schools must be available to all students, but they won't be as long as know-nothing politicians and would-be reformers concentrate on the wrong remedies and research that advocates privatization and cuts to social programs. We need to replicate what actually works for children, families and communities.

Find out what else works at www.facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Kingdom For $10,000

So, how much damage did Mitt Romney do to his presidential campaign after offering Rick Perry a $10,000 wager on his health care position?  We'll find out in the next few days after the pollsters have had a chance to wade through their data, but my sense is that it will do damage to what's left of Romney's standing as a regular guy who happens to be rich.

The damage control has already begun.

Political campaigns have turned on worse gaffes, as Perry, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain can tell you, but this one will stand out as Romney's low point. It also comes at a bad time, with voting set to commence in Iowa a day after you've returned that last questionable holiday gift.

Of course, Newt Gingrich has harvested the most media attention over the past few weeks, and this trend continued last night. This AP article described Newt as having a "steely calm" and as:

defending his most controversial stands without appearing to be the thin-skinned hothead his critics often describe.

The former House speaker seemed to accomplish that goal in Saturday's debate in Iowa. His challenge will be to sustain the strategy while rivals attack him on the airwaves and the ground, and to convince conservative voters that he's their champion despite his occasional departures from orthodoxy.

But Newt's already had to backtrack on his comment describing the Palestinians as an invented people, which will do nothing to help his foreign policy credentials. And he did a little bit of constitutional reinvention when discussing his views of the mandate that would require everyone to buy health insurance. It seems that he supported it in 1993 when he was fighting Bill and Hillary's program, but explained it this way on Saturday:

"I frankly was floundering, trying to find a way to make sure that people who could afford it were paying their hospital bills, while still leaving an out so libertarians could not buy insurance," Gingrich said. "It's now clear that the mandate, I think, is clearly unconstitutional. "

So I guess the Gingrich constitutional test has an 18 year time limit. He'll need to work on that one.

Overall, Mitt did not do poorly aside from the bet, Bachmann's reference to Newt Romney was amusing, and Ron Paul's message continues to be the most consistent of all of the candidates. It won't get him the nomination, but you can't accuse him of flip-flopping. He's my pick for second place in Iowa.

What now then? Thankfully, Donald Trump's mega-disaster debate has been exposed for what it truly is: an opportunity for him to be the star in a political game that only he can win. The GOP field will continue to try and get their messages out while the rest of America goes shopping, and President Obama will try to paint each and every one of them as against the middle class. The latest polls show Obama ahead both nationally and ahead of Gingrich specifically in the key swing states of Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Six months ago, it would have been madness to predict the Republican state of affairs as it exists today. Six months from now, I think that Mitt Romney will stand as the eventual nominee. I don't have $10,000 to back it up, though.

For more prescient predictions, visit facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bold Ideas Lead to Great Schools:The Future of Education Reform

Sometimes an idea, or set of ideas, comes along that's so clear and sensible, it makes you stop and wonder why we haven't implemented it. Then again, some ideas are so ineffective, it's a wonder they haven't been buried in an avalanche of criticism.

Such is the state of public education reform in the United States at this moment. Governors throughout the country have tried, and in some cases succeeded, in forcing their versions of school reform in their states with little or misguided thought and a jaundiced eye towards the teachers who will need to carry it out. They eschew collaboration for rigidity, cooperation for coarseness, and conversation for calumny. Theirs is a corporate model based on competition, but that's not necessarily how schools work. So far, this top-down approach has done little for education, but has done a great deal to sour relations between the adults who need to implement the changes and the politicians who want votes.

The key to real, lasting, effective reform in this country lies in a partnership between the state governments and teachers, parents and students, and the most effective reforms will focus their energies on people working together. That's why the ideas in the article, Taking Teacher Quality Seriously: A Collaborative Approach to Teacher Evaluation by Stan Karp of Rethinking Schools Blog, are so vital. They are aimed at improving education and student performance without sacrificing the rights and concerns of teachers. As Karp says:

One promising model is the Montgomery County, Maryland Professional Growth System (PGS), which has taken a collaborative approach to improving teacher quality for more than a decade. Several defining features make the Montgomery model very different than the test-based “value-added” or “student growth” approaches. The Montgomery Co. professional growth system:
  • was negotiated through collective bargaining rather than imposed by state or federal mandate.
  • is based on a clear, common vision of high quality professional teaching practice.
  • includes test scores as one of many indicators of student progress and teacher performance without rigidly weighted formulas.
  • includes a strong PAR (peer assistance and review) component for all novice and under-performing teachers, including those with tenure.
  • takes a broad, qualitative approach to promoting individual and system-wide teacher quality and continuous professional growth.
There are many strengths to the PGS, as outlined above and in the rest of the article. It allows for collective bargaining, so it's less antagonizing than the Wisconsin model that took away that right from teachers, and it has a component for peer assistance (PAR), where experienced teachers can share their expertise with newer educators.

But perhaps the best part of the system is that it's not SDOT (Shoved Down Our Throats) by politicians who have little, if any knowledge of what works best in classrooms. It's teacher-centered; and that's the correct approach because teachers are the ones best qualified to carry it out.

The PGS also addresses another concern that the public has about education, and that's teacher quality. As Karp notes: 

In 11 years, the PAR process has led to some 500 teachers being removed from the classroom in a countywide system of about 150,000 students with approximately 10,000 teachers and 200 schools. Over the same period, nearly 5,000 teachers have successfully completed the PAR process.[ii]

But PAR is only part of a professional growth system designed to improve teacher capacity throughout the system, not just identify and remove ineffective teachers. It’s a qualitative approach growing out of a shared vision of high quality professional practice. The PGS begins with “six clear standards for teacher performance, based on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards” and includes “performance criteria for how the standards are to be met and descriptive examples of observable teaching behaviors.”

You can read the standards in the article. It's refreshing to see that every one of them begins with the word, "Teachers."

There's more to like in the explanation of the process that teachers and administrators use to evaluate the program and each other. Teachers and principals are equally represented on a panel that determines if a teacher is effective. There's an appeals process if a teacher is given a negative recommendation, and the system is based on documentation at every level of evaluation and appeal. This is a far cry from what happens at many public schools, especially here in New Jersey, where many teachers are observed once or twice per year and documentation is cursory, general or incomplete.

In the end, it's the words the participants use to describe the process that show how effective the program can be. Here are some examples:

“It wouldn’t work without the level of trust we have here,” MCEA president Doug Prouty told the NY Times.

“(G)ood teaching is nurtured in a school and in a school system culture that values constant feedback, analysis, and refinement of the quality of teaching.”

While the system is spelled out in detail, what really makes it possible is the level of trust and cooperation that grew out of years of developing a collaborative approach to issues of teacher quality.

In Maryland, they seem to be on the right track.

In New Jersey, we might be moving in that direction.

On December 1, State Senator Barbara Buono introduced two education bills. The first would establish a teacher residency program to replace the present student teaching requirement.

Under the bill, all fourth-year students would be placed in a school district five days per week for a full-semester under the supervision of a district mentor teacher. The students would also take a seminar course during this period that provides a collaborative learning experience and peer discussion with other residency students and with faculty.

The bill would also create teacher mentor positions in each school district. These master teachers would then serve to introduce the teacher residents into the profession over the course of the full semester. It would be a collaborative program and would recognize excellent teachers.

The second bill would require each school district to develop a set of standards by which all teachers would be evaluated, by both peers and principals, based on district curriculum standards. They would be observed four times per year and be required to submit a portfolio of their work. There is no mention of standardized tests, and this process would be determined through collective bargaining. Those are good things. The bill also mentions collaboration and cooperation. Senator Buono's bills will not be the final word on these issues, but they are a welcome addition to the debate.

The current reform models that rely on threats and stare-downs might make for exciting videos, but they are terrible public policy. If more Governors and Commissioners of Education would commit to the cooperative, collaborative ethic, they would find that educators would more readily commit to implementing bold reforms enthusiastically.

For more bold, enthusiastic ideas, visit facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Polling Report: December 6, 2011

Since our last episode, on November 6, one year before the national elections, much has changed in the race for president. We are currently in the middle (end? beginning?) of the Gingrich ascendancy, and there is some evidence (from this CBS News poll) that Newt could pull off a stunning comeback win in Iowa, which would put him in terrific position for New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada later in January. So with that appetizing thought in our heads, let's move on to the main meal.

Obama Job Approval

The latest RealClearPolitics Index of Obama's job approval is here. Since last month, Obama's approval has dropped form 45.3% to 43.8% and his disapproval has risen slightly, from 50.7% in November to 50.8% today. A look at the main 3-day averages that RCP uses, Gallup and Rasmussen, shows almost no change in Obama's improvement. Further, this article puts Obama's approval lower than Jimmy Carter's at the same stage in their presidencies. Clearly, this is not good news for the President's supporters.  

Head-To-Head Match-ups

These number tell a much different story. While more Americans disapprove of the job the president is doing, they favor him over every other prospective Republican nominee.

He's also slightly ahead of Mitt Romney in the swing state of Florida, but only by 1 point.

The Republican Field

It's the Newt show at this point, and that's a very recent phenomenon, coming on the heels of, and in some ways caused by, the implosion of Herman Cain's campaign. The numbers are stark and solid, but the real question is, how long will they last?

Perhaps more troubling for Mitt Romney's campaign are these results from pollsandvotes.com showing Romney's support actually dropping in the first four states to hold votes next month. If Mitt doesn't watch out, he might be in a position where a less-than-solid win in New Hampshire could be seen as a failure or a "he's supposed to win" moment that doesn't pay off in the long run.

My sense is that Romney will win most of the January states simply because, at this point, Gingrich doesn't have a presence in these states that would allow him to conduct the retail politics necessary to corral votes. It's even more uphill for Newt in Iowa, where getting your people to the caucuses is the main concern.  Still, he does have money and is beginning to air TV ads that will reach far more people than getting out and shaking hands.

But Romney also has to be concerned. Conservatives will show up in droves this year, and he could find himself third, behind Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann. That would be quite a fall. Romney didn't think he would have to fight hard for Iowa since he's been in the state for the past two years, but that's changed now. 

The Ballots

The Electoral College map hasn't budged since November.
And neither has the Generic Congressional Ballot, which shows Democrats leading Republicans by 1.2%

Although it's very early in the campaign, Obama's strategists have mapped out his electoral college strategy, and it looks something like this:

First, the president is aiming to win all the states John Kerry won in 2004. That would bring him to 246 electoral votes, including Pennsylvania's mother lode of 20. Add New Mexico, which the president won in 2008, and that's five more electoral votes. Now he's at 251.

Then it gets hard. The final 19 electoral votes would come through a process of mix and match.

North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, and even Arizona are in the mix, with each showing both promise and peril for Obama's reelection chances.

That's it for now. Before I push off for the holidays (I'll post another polling report on January 3 for Iowa), let me suggest some gifts for the political junkie in your household. Or in your shoes.

From Amazon, if you're one of those people who still reads (how 2009!)
Obama curios
Gag gifts.
The best free gift!


Monday, December 5, 2011

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Truth About Teacher Tenure

Have you heard the latest story about teachers and tenure? No? It goes like this. A teacher was given stellar observations for two and a half years. In the spring of their third year, the principal wrote a savagely negative review of one of the teacher's lessons because the teacher made comments about how cold their room was during the winter, and the children were complaining that it was difficult to concentrate. Parents called the principal to complain. The principal felt embarrassed and wrote a negative evaluation. The teacher never received tenure.

Never heard that one?

How about this one? A student accused a tenured teacher of using inappropriate language in the classroom. The principal didn't get along with this teacher, an officer in the local teacher's association, and made it abundantly clear that all they needed was an excuse to cause the teacher trouble. After a cursory investigation, the principal recommended that the teacher lose their salary increment for the next year because teachers shouldn't use that kind of language in front of students. Two months later, the student admitted lying about the incident because they were upset with a grade they earned in the teacher's class. The teacher was given back the salary increase that was taken from them.

Chances are good that you never heard that story either.

Why do I mention these incidents, both of which actually occurred? Because they illustrate the difference between a teacher having fair dismissal rights and one that does not. They also illustrate the lies and misinformation floating around about what tenure actually means in practice.

Nowhere is this in more vivid view than Tom Moran's piece in Sunday's Newark Star-Ledger. It's essentially a response to an article by Janine Walker Caffrey, the Superintendent of Schools in Perth Amboy, NJ. Both of these writings sound the alarm bells that the public loves to hear. From Moran:

Janine Caffrey, the schools superintendent in Perth Amboy, could hardly believe the teacher was so incompetent.

The kids didn’t have needed textbooks. There was no lesson plan. Other teachers complained that students were learning nothing. And when the principal demanded changes, the teacher wouldn’t budge.

So Caffrey, a spark plug of energy, left her sparsely furnished office to meet the teacher for a showdown, ready to whap some sense into this person once and for all.

But it didn’t work out that way.

“This teacher looked me in the eye and said, ‘I won’t do it.’ Just an outright refusal. And this has happened to multiple people before me. We’ve done multiple corrective action plans, and it’s not achieving any results.”

So the teacher won the showdown and is still standing in front of a classroom full of kids every day, supremely secure in defiance.

Only one word can explain this insanity: tenure.

It certainly sounds horrible, and if the story is true, that teacher should not be teaching in the public schools. The real problem is not tenure, though. It's buried deep in Morans' article and it goes like this: 

To be fair, districts share some of the blame as well. Tenure rules might be crazy, but it is possible to get rid of the worst teachers if the district builds a solid case with a paper trail. In the case of the refusenik teacher, Perth Amboy failed to do that. The teacher had won satisfactory evaluations in the past, as nearly all teachers do.

The problem, my friends, is that the principal was not doing their job. There's no sharing here. If principals are not building cases or informing the teacher's association representatives that a teacher is a problem, or is having a problem, then the principal is at fault. All on their own. And if the principal or supervisor is routinely giving positive reviews to ineffective or bad teachers, they need to stop. I don't know where Moran gets his "nearly all teachers" receive satisfactory evaluations data. My guess is that he's simply repeating what he's heard. It's a great story, but he needs to support his statements with facts.

Why is this all on the administration and not the teacher's union? Because the NJEA has nothing to do with whether a teacher earns tenure. The legislature wrote and passed the tenure laws and school administrators are responsible for implementing them.

Tenure is not a job for life. It's a guarantee that a teacher cannot be fired for frivolous, personal, vindictive reasons by administrators who don't like them or need to install a relative in their place.

Tenure is a requirement that a teacher who has earned it is confronted by evidence of misdeed, misconduct or behavior that puts children at risk.

Tenure is earned after working, with positive recommendations by the Superintendent, Principal and, if necessary, Department Supervisor, for three years in the same school district. It shouldn't be handed out like candy at Halloween, but sometimes it is. And it's not the teacher's fault. The responsibility is all on the administrator. And if Superintendents like Janine Caffrey do not build a case, then a bad teacher can only be removed by going through the process, which Moran cites in a nifty chart in his article.

Moran and Caffrey also bring up how much it costs to discipline or fire a teacher who has earned tenure. The NJEA has offered a tenure reform plan that would streamline the process so it would take 90 days at most, as opposed to the possible two plus years it takes now, to settle cases. That would help, but it would do nothing to solve the problem of administrators doling out good reviews to ineffective or bad teachers.

So what to do?

How about having principals and supervisors observe teachers 8 times per year for the first three years (or four years as the NJEA plan proposes) and 6 times a year once they've earned tenure? That would create a tremendous amount of data by which a teacher could be evaluated before and after they've earned tenure. And since the overwhelming majority of teachers who do earn tenure deserve it and are members of the best teaching staff in the country as measured by national test scores, observing them a few more times might catch the few who would be problems down the road. Another good idea would be to have a teacher's first year be a residency year, where someone new to the profession could receive help from a qualified mentor. This mentoring could then continue for the next 3 years.

One other issue also rears its head when people discuss tenure, and that's the question of why teachers have it and other professions don't. My answer is that other professions should have some kind of objective job protection. The arguments against public workers by governors such as Chris Christie, Scott Walker and John Kasich revolve around the idea that since private sector workers don't have these benefits, then no workers should have them. They seem to be more concerned with breaking the unions than they do with actually improving education.

That's backwards.

The decline of unions has meant that workers are more and more at the mercy of management and it's time that we changed that conversation. Terrible stories, such as the ones in Moran's article only illustrate one side of the debate. If school management would all do their jobs in an honest, forthright way, we could more readily dismiss ineffective teachers. And that would be a positive step forward for everyone.

Take another positive step forward and visit us at facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Will The Gingrich Steal Christmas, Or Is Newt Moot?

Consider: This has been the year of economic gloom, a devastating Japanese tsunami, an earthquake in Virginia, a hurricane in New England, and a destructive East Coast snow storm before Halloween. These are bad enough.

Are we really headed for a holiday season dominated by discussion of Newt Gingrich's chances in the Republican primaries? The fates are indeed playing a cruel joke on us mere mortals.

The stories and analysis are coming fast and furious. Let's see...

There's Newt the complete idiot.
Newt saying idiotic things.
Newt the poll climber.
Newt the spoiler.
Newt the statesman.
And Newt the insufferable.

So which Newt are we going to get? And why should we care? After all, he's not going to win the nomination.

I still think that ring will be worn by Mitt Romney, the subject of a long story in the New York Times Magazine today. It's not an especially flattering account, but it gets to the heart of how Romney intends to win next year. From the article:

Mitt Romney’s campaign has decided upon a rather novel approach to winning the presidency. It has taken a smart and highly qualified but largely colorless candidate and made him exquisitely one-dimensional: All-Business Man, the world’s most boring superhero. In the recent past, aspirants and their running mates have struggled to clear the regular-guy bar. Dan Quayle lacked a sense of struggle; Michael Dukakis couldn’t emote even when asked what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered; George H. W. Bush seemed befuddled by a grocery-store scanner; John Kerry was a windsurfer; John McCain couldn’t count all of his houses. 

Romney, a socially awkward Mormon with squishy conservative credentials and a reported worth in the range of $190 million to $250 million, is betting that in 2012, recession-weary voters want a fixer, not a B.F.F. As the Romney campaign’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, told me: “The economy is overwhelmingly the issue. Our whole campaign is premised on the idea that this is a referendum on Obama, the economy is a disaster and Obama is uniquely blocked from being able to talk about jobs.” 

What happens when the economy starts improving? This is the oft-repeated conundrum of the candidate running against a recession. Ronald Reagan made it an issue in 1980 and won overwhelmingly. Bill Clinton hammered George H.W. Bush about the economy and defeated him, despite the fact that the economy was improving during the fall of 1992. In 2012, Romney will be in a position where he has to hope that things don't markedly improve before the election. For an American exceptionalist, it must hurt him to have to root against jobs, rising wages, recovering banks and the success of the euro zone, but I think he believes that if he smiles all the time, voters will forgive him.

And Newt (this is a story about Newt)? Well, Newt is touting his resume these days.. He's running on ending communism and getting the economy moving in the 90s, despite voting against (and having every Republican vote against) the Clinton budget of 1993 that set the stage for the decade's expansion. On that issue, Newt is moot. But, again, it doesn't matter, because Newt will never be the GOP nominee.

The pundits tell us it's a two-man race over on the right, now that Herman Cain has dropped out and the other retreads have had their days in the sun and their corresponding sunsets. I feel bad for John Huntsman, who never got his renaissance, and who might qualify as the only reasonable Republican in the race. But this is the year of the uncompromising conservative and I imagine that Mitt and Newt will fight to see who can oppose abortion, taxes and union rights more than the other.

The good news is that the holidays are fast approaching, and this year, we've really earned the good cheer.

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