Monday, September 3, 2012

New Jersey's Teachers: The Envy of the Nation

And I ain't makin' that up, neither.

In honor of back-to-school time here in the Garden State (I know that schools in other states might have started in August), it's time for us to recognize the unparalleled job that New Jersey's public school teachers do year in and year out.

We consistently rank in the top 3 nationwide in student outcomes on most available measures; SAT, AP and NAEP scores, college acceptances (too many graduates go out-of-state, though), writing achievement and overall performance. We have some significant gaps between how suburban students perform and how their urban counterparts score, and that is a sore point both economically and politically.

But even with that huge caveat, we are the envy of other states. How do I know? Because this past July I attended the National Education Association convention in Washington, D.C., and many of my colleagues around the country told me so.

I spoke with delegates from Tennessee, and they told me that their statewide tests dictated their curriculum to the point that they had to jettison most enrichment material from their classrooms to make sure they covered the test material. They also said that for the two months before the tests, they did nothing but review and drill.

And just in case you think this is professional bias, I sat next to a family from Tennessee on the train down to DC, and their daughter, a high school senior from a town near Nashville, told me how ridiculous (her word) the tests were and how they made the teachers stop teaching fun stuff (her words) and worry about the tests. Her parents seconded her remarks, then went out of the way to tell me that they were Republicans, but didn't agree with Governor Christie's attempts to impose a Tennessee solution on New Jersey. It's amazing what people will tell you if you look them in the eye and just listen to what they say.

Anyway, when I told the Tennessee teachers where I was from, they told me that they loved the NJEA because it had a backbone and stood up, as much as it could, to the governor.

I got the same treatment from Idaho. The president of the Idaho Education Association also professed admiration for New Jersey's public school teachers because she said that Idaho was moving towards a state salary system and that the state had appropriated money that should have gone to teacher's salaries to pay for a misguided technology venture that has no research behind it. I asked if the teachers had any say in the decision, and of course the answer was no. So much for professional respect.

From California's delegation, I heard the most distressing stories of administrative overreach, even to the point where an entire elementary school's faculty was being replaced because two teachers were accused of lewd acts with students. The administration's rationale? "We don't want any more surprises." I am not condoning anything the accused teachers might have done, but where are the due process protections promised to teachers as citizens of the United States? As I spoke to the California delegates about these and other occurrences, they said they thought that this could not happen in New Jersey because of its strong association. I certainly hope so.

Other teachers I spoke with consistently said the same things about New Jersey once I identified myself from the state: They admired and respected the NJEA for standing up for member's rights in a state where teachers still have strong protections and a unified membership. Even the new tenure law, signed by Christie in the dog days of August, keeps due process and tenure protections for all teachers who earn it, even as it takes longer to procure and streamlines the process of firing a teacher who doesn't meet local standards.

So as we begin another school year, I am proud to say that I am a New Jersey public school teacher.
I am proud to say that I am committed to educating children and young adults so they can become productive members of society. And I am proud to be a member of NJEA, an organization that has a national reputation as one that fosters a pro-education ethic, and one that has the best interests of its members at heart.

I've focused primarily on public schools here, but it's been my pleasure and honor to have worked in private schools and to have trained teachers who work in a wide variety of educational settings. Colleagues, remember that we do one of the most important paid jobs in the country. We have earned honor and respect and we show it through our deeds and actions. Have a great school year.

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