Wednesday, December 26, 2012

New Teacher Evaluations, Same Old Issues

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 and on Twitter @rigrundfest 

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Gun Conversation

Why are we still having this conversation? Why are we still debating whether we should regulate assault and military style (whatever that is) weapons and limit large purchases of ammunition? Why are we still beholden to an organization that believes that the United States Constitution guarantees an unlimited, unfettered, absolute right to a gun, despite a giant clause at the beginning of the Second Amendment that clearly refers to  militias? Do we have absolute free speech rights? Religious rights? Rights to assembly? No. These are all regulated activities. We need to regulate guns.

I've read the arguments about how a weapons ban or more regulation would not have stopped this horrific shooting. I've listened and watched as talking head after talking head drones on about how politically difficult it is for a Democratic president to pursue controls on weapons because it would be political death.

I've had conversations in person and on social media with people for whom their weapon seems to be their most cherished possession.

"If they come for my gun I'll give them the bullets first!"
"Over my dead body!"
"From my cold dead hands!"
"First it's my gun, then they'll come for my house and my family!"
"What we need is for every teacher and principal to be trained in how to use a gun and to be issued one for their classroom."

Clearly I don't understand the mania, the attachment, the fear, the anger, and the entitlement that many people have with their guns. I'm not advocating taking anyone's gun away who can't prove that they're responsible enough to carry one. I'm questioning the idea that we don't have to ask more questions, or do more background checks or limit what kind of gun people can buy and how much ammunition they can get at one time. There are responsible ways to do this. We regulate so many things in our society from marriage to driver's to pet licenses, from who can be a teacher and a police officer to how fresh the meat and dairy has to be in our food stores.

But guns? Weapons that can destroy lives? Kill children? Apparently not more than the way we regulate them now, despite the fact that the system doesn't work. When a system doesn't work and results in people's deaths, you fix it. That's what we need now.

Are there ways around these proposals? You bet. And people will find them. But the point is to put them in place and see how they work because what we have now has led to one of the bloodiest, tragic, heartbreaking years this country has seen in quite a while. Gun deaths are preventable. Let's prevent them.

Register your comments at and on Twitter @rigrundfest 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Alternate Route to Undermining Teaching

It's not enough that the Christie Administration has bashed teachers as union mules and the source of New Jersey's fiscal ills. It's not enough that the governor has promoted private partnerships with public schools to avoid paying the state's fair share of education aid to school districts in need of money. It's not enough that he's advocated for merit pay based on an evaluative model that is reliant on faulty research. And it's not enough that he's attacked NJEA officials personally because of their private organization salaries.

Now the governor's administration wants to make it easier for charter schools to hire lesser qualified teachers simply, it seems, for ideological reasons. How is he doing this? By proposing that alternate route teachers who want to work in charter schools be able to earn teaching licenses with fewer requirements than those people who want public school teaching certificates. If you ever need any more evidence that the governor hasn't a clue about how to attract and train quality teachers, then here's your proof.

Let me state from the outset that I have taught the alternate route New Pathways to Teaching in New Jersey (NPTNJ) program since 2003. It's a wonderful program that has trained thousands of people in New Jersey to become qualified, knowledgeable, effective teachers. It asks these prospective teachers to take hundreds of hours in pedagogy, theory, educational psychology, literacy and mathematics instruction, and classroom management techniques. They need to have at least 30 hours of college credit in their chosen discipline. Once teachers are hired by a school (either public or private) they need to be observed and are required to have a mentor teacher from their school's staff. All of these things are done to ensure, as best we can, that those new teachers have the practical and theoretical skills that will allow them to succeed in their new field. Besides, the state says they have to do this.

But not, apparently, if you want to teach in a charter school.

For reasons I can only assume are arbitrary, unthinking and ideological, the new state rules for alternate route charter school teachers are different. From the article:

Under the proposal, the charter schools would no longer need to meet the existing requirements that their alternate route teachers have at least 30 hours of credits in their content area, nor would they need to have a set number of hours of classroom training before they are hired and once they are hired. They would also not be required to have a mentor teacher as rookie teachers do in the public schools.

This is being done because of the word most associated with charter schools. This word is supposed to be able to solve the problems that public schools have, like the fact that New Jersey's public schools are among the nation's best, or that we have among the highest SAT and Advanced Placement Test scores in the country, or that we have the best trained teachers in the country thanks to an organization whose first objective in to ensure that only the most highly qualified teachers are in the classroom, or that we are the envy of both teachers and parents in other states.

The word is supposed to signal to the public that the stodgy old public schools are stuck in the past and that throwing more money at them would only be a waste of taxpayer resources. The word is supposed to bring to mind the most effective trait we need in education today.

That word is flexibility.

Charter schools should have the flexibility to hire people who are underprepared for classroom teaching.

They should have the flexibility to hire people who have less than the requisite knowledge, 30 credits in an academic discipline, that most every college in the country believes is the bare minimum a graduate should have for a 4-year degree.

They should have the flexibility to teach without the help and guidance of a mentor teacher who can help them navigate the intricacies of the profession in a supportive, nonevaluative manner.

They should have the flexibility to hire people who have fewer hours in the classroom, fewer classroom experiences upon which to draw, and fewer student contact hours either teaching or observing in a classroom with an effective teacher.

This is stunning, not just for its outright ignorance of what constitutes effective teacher training, but what it will mean for the quality of charter school teachers in the future. And yet, the Christie Administration believes that this will ensure their quality. Perhaps that's why they announced this plan with as little fanfare as possible and buried the change deep within the State's Professional Licensure Code. Here's the link. Have fun.

This change is bad enough, but when you pair it with another Christie goody on education, it makes even less sense. The state announced on Friday that it will partner with the Princeton-based Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship Foundation to recruit smarty-pants college students in math and science to teach in New Jersey's worst performing high schools.  These prospective public school teachers will luckily be able to shadow mentor teachers and will earn Master's Degrees after they're finished with the program.

Why can't the alternate route charter school teachers get the same advantages? Must have something to do with flexibility. Maybe they should hire personal trainers and physical therapists to address that.

I've trained hundreds of teachers over the course of my career are mentored scores of others. Teaching is a difficult job and one that needs to be done right. The new charter school rules are an insult to educators and will create a two-tiered system of teachers within the schools and the state. The Christie Administration is again applying ideology in place of thought. It's a mistake they've made time and time again.

Guess they don't learn too good.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cliff Notes

When I was growing up, I had a good friend named Cliff. He was smart and funny, OK, corny, and a bit nerdy, but he had a good heart and I'm sure he's doing wonderful things with his life.

Meanwhile, his name is being dragged through the mud.

This Fiscal Cliff business is terrible for anyone named Cliff and it's even worse that it's hogging the headlines around the holidays with no end in sight. The media is absolutely breathless at the thought that on January 1...very little will happen. Yes, tax rates will go up and federal spending will go down, but it will take a few weeks or months for the real effect to take hold. Of course, the real impact will be on the stock market and on business spending because if there's no deal then they'll have to make serious decisions that could tilt us back into recession.

In the meantime, the political posturing is so bad a team of chiropractors is on 24-hour call on Pennsylvania Avenue. Maybe that stretch that has all of the homeless people sleeping under scaffolding. The president and John Boehner could do worse than to meet there just to remind themselves of what effects their actions have on the country.

What's obvious is that the Republican Party has learned very little from last month's election. It's clear that the public will blame the GOP if there is no deal because, unlike the far right, most Americans have a sense of fairness that says that wealthy people need to pay more and some social programs need to be cut because that's what we do when we have a problem in this country. We compromise. We talk to each other. We each contribute what we can to solve the issue.

The Republican establishment doesn't understand this and it's in President Obama's best interest to remind people on a daily basis that the failure will fall squarely on one political party. Grover Norquist's notorious no-tax pledge has always been a bad idea, and its effects on our system have resulted in a government that teeters between not being able to pay its bills and doing just enough with what it has to mess things up. Ronald Reagan famously said that government is the problem, then set us on a fiscal course that ensured a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Elections have consequences and fortunately, this year's results shifted the debate away from obstructionism and towards practical solutions. Unfortunately, political change take time. The Democrats didn't realize how much they had lost the message after 1984 and it took them at least 8 years to regroup and find the Clintonian third way. The Supreme Court robbed the country of a slow recovery from the excesses of the Gingrich revolution in 2000, and the hardened right was able to solidify its gains in 2010.

It could take until 2016 or even 2018 for the left to realize what this past election promised. Marriage equality, a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, a fairer tax code, universal health care and biting financial regulation will get pushed this term in the Congress, but real progress will be slow. The last clawing cuts of the Republican conservatives will draw blood for a while longer, to the detriment of society at large. Perhaps the next president, who will be a Democrat, can push these things over the finish line. History will remember and celebrate Barack Obama for setting the table.

So as another week dawns and we wonder what new twists the political debate will take, keep in mind that we are seeing the end of an era. It was an era of excess and stubbornness, with some necessary reforms, but ultimately as much a failed experiment of the right as the end of the 1970s was for the left. The fiscal cliff is but a symptom. The GOP will lose more than they gain because they have to if we are to move forward. My hope is with the future.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest