While most of the rest of New Jersey was shopping and celebrating, I immersed myself in an article that shined some light on New Jersey's new teacher tenure and evaluation law. The lesson? Principals, supervisors and other district evaluators are going to have to be crystal clear, honest and consistent in their written evaluations or face the probability that cases brought against teachers will backfire on them.
Why is that important? After all, teachers have been evaluated multiple times every year for their entire careers, and those evaluations have decided whether they're rehired or earn tenure, right?
Um, well...that's complicated.
The ugly truth is that administrators have been fudging evaluations for a good long time, with the result that many effective teachers have been unfairly culled from the herd while some ineffective teachers have earned their due process rights. I personally know of three teachers who have earned sterling evaluations in their first two-and-a half years of teaching, and then were saddled with one terrifically poor evaluation at the end of their third year, resulting in their not earning tenure. In every case there was more to the story, in that the teacher had become too vocal or too involved with local association activities or, in one unfortunate case, the principal simply didn't like the person and wanted a friend to have that job.
The TEACHNJ law is supposed to remedy all of this. The new evaluation system is geared towards making sure that every teacher in every public school classroom is, at the very least, rated "effective" according to the law. The main problem with the law is that it's still in the testing stage in most districts, with a target date of September 2103 for full implementation. With hundreds of schools still working out the details, along comes the first case to be decided on the merits of a teacher's performance in the classroom (the first ever case involved off-campus teacher behavior and an excellent analysis by Jersey Jazzman can be found here).
Arbitrator David L. Gregory's decision was both well-written and concise. You have to love a jurist who cites both Felix Frankfurter and Occan's razor in their writing, and Gregory gets to the heart of the issue, rendering his decision in five pages. What he found was there there was a "stark and stunning 180 degree turn by the Principal" in the difference between their written evaluation, saying on the one hand that the teacher possessed "marginal abilities" in preparation and classroom environment, but "clear and expressive" oral and written communication. The principal goes on to say that "(T)he teacher's well-chosen vocabulary enriches the lesson and serves as a positive model." There's more, but the upshot is that Gregory recognized that the principal contradicted themselves so egregiously, that the teacher was being evaluated "arbitrarily and capriciously."
The teacher won the case and all charges were dismissed.
Is there something besides an honest evaluation going on between principal and teacher here? Without other evidence, it's difficult to say, but the inference is that this was a multilayered case. In any event, it's a warning to evaluators throughout the state that they must henceforth be honest, consistent and specific with their language if they are to prove that a teacher should be fired.
The 45 day limit on deciding cases was also a factor here as there was no actual hearing due to delays associated with Hurricane Sandy. Quick does not necessarily mean accurate. In this case the facts supported the teacher, but in the future the time limit might have a more deleterious effect and lead to a less fair decision.
Register your comments at www.facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives and on Twitter @rigrundfest