Logic Gaps in the NJ Ed Reform Debate

Posted on April 14, 2011

Not much time for another full length post today. There are numbers to be crunched. But, I did feel it necessary to clear up a few issues regarding NJ Education Reform proposals, including those laid out yesterday focused on a) reforming teacher evaluation to focus on student assessment data, b) tying evaluation to compensation, tenure and dismissal policies, c) ending last in first out, and d) requiring mutual consent in placement/hiring of teachers to specific school locations.

And of course, these policy proposals are framed with the usual urgency.

Here are four overarching claims (and a few other things) based on reformy logic being applied in the New Jersey policy debate:

1. We must act now!

The argument goes that we must act now, before it’s too late, because things are so awful. First, it’s rather hard to argue with a straight face, and certainly not with any data, that NJ’s public education system is so awful. NJ performs at or near the top among states on national assessments, and NJ low-income students (qualifying for free lunch) also do quite well nationally and have risen over the years (one example here).  Typically, the great urgency argument is a ruse to get policymakers to act in haste, and adopt policies they and especially those who voted for them, will regret later.

2. We couldn’t possibly do worse!

The argument that we couldn’t possibly do worse! Clearly, New Jersey could do worse, since New Jersey does quite well. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep trying to do better, or that we shouldn’t be trying to do better specifically in those areas where we aren’t doing as well as we should. But, we could surely do worse, as the vast majority of states do!  See: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/dataset.aspx

3. Teacher evaluation, compensation and tenure reform are the key variables!

All of the current proposals center on what are argued to be necessary changes to teacher evaluation, compensation, tenure and dismissal. That is, the assumption is that we can improve all schools by making these changes and specifically that we can improve the 200 failing schools which serve over 100,000 students. For these changes to be reasonable, one would have to have some idea, some empirical basis perhaps, for why these policy changes might have any positive effect on either our highly successful districts or those supposedly dreadfully failing ones. Since the existing research literature provides no real substantive support for merit pay (as a way to either stimulate immediate, or long-term improvements), or using student test scores for teacher evaluation, one might logically look at the differences between NJ’s highest performing schools and NJ’s lowest performing ones. Of course, what we find there is that the teacher contractual agreements are quite similar in higher and lower performing schools in NJ. Of course, other things are different, most notably the demographics of those schools.

Let’s make this really simple – IT’S PLAINLY ILLOGICAL TO BLAME SUCCESS OR FAILURE ON A FACTOR THAT DOESN’T VARY ACROSS SUCCESSFUL AND FAILING SCHOOLS. That’s just middle school science logic. Perhaps we should fire the middle school science teachers who taught the current crop of ed reformers?

4. No business in their right mind would retain “ineffective” employees, so why should we let this happen in schools?

There’s also that fun argument that no business in their right mind would or should retain ineffective, low quality, employees? Why would they? Why do they? Well, it’s all relative. Now surely, anyone reading this has encountered at least a few employees of private companies or perhaps even colleagues who, well, just aren’t that good at what they do. Some people do better than others in any field, and there’s always a bottom rung. We ask ourselves, why do we retain these people? Why would a school retain an ineffective teacher? Why would a school grant tenure to such a large share of teachers, some of whom might not be that great. Sometimes the answer to this is pretty simple – That those waiting in line to apply to take those jobs at present salaries might not be any better, and in fact, might be worse! You don’t let go your bottom rung unless you are pretty sure you can replace them with something better.  Applied to the current NJ school reform debate: One cannot simply assume that if we force poor urban districts to lay off large numbers of teachers that we would consider “ineffective,” that there will be a long line of better teachers waiting to take those jobs. In fact, the alternatives might be worse in many cases, unless we significantly step up teacher pay and maintain quality benefits, including job stability and the potential for consistent income growth over time (potentially allowing a lower wage than would otherwise be required).


We must fix LIFO now!

That is, clearly, the most offensive policies that exist today across states and in district contractual agreements are those that protect old, crusty ineffective, uncaring curmudgeons while discarding – throwing out onto the streets – young energetic and caring teachers.

This one is really a smokescreen issue, especially when coupled with the immediacy claim. It makes for good sound bytes and has a catchy acronym – LIFO – which must be bad, because it sounds so bad! But when you dig deeper, even though it seems to make sense that quality should trump seniority in layoff decisions, it’s not that simple – nor is it huge money saver and job saver as some assert.

  • First, layoffs are here and now – in very tight budget times – and the supposed evaluations to be used don’t yet exist. So suggesting that this is a necessary immediate change is foolish.
  • Second, if we are relying heavily on test scores to decide quality – the only teachers who would have scores attached to them would be those in core content teaching in grades 3 to 8. But, layoffs are likely to occur in other areas first – and unlikely to reach core teaching in K-8 in many cases. In fact, schools and districts already have significant latitude to restructure programs and offerings leading to layoffs that may not all fall entirely on the basis of seniority (programmatic & position cuts).
  • Third, there is more research out there than is acknowledged in the present debate that actually does speak to the value of experience.
  • Fourth, replacing a not-so-great, convenience based (and perhaps turf protecting) measure like seniority with a potentially politically charged, manipulable and or random error prone alternative (like test score based evaluations) CAN ACTUALLY MAKE THINGS WORSE. While LIFO may not be great, the alternatives could be worse and could be an even greater deterrent to the recruitment of a talented teacher workforce.

A few other notes

Regarding what we know about mutual consent teacher hiring/placement policies: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/10/08/nctq-were-sure-it-will-work-even-if-research-says-it-doesnt/

Oh, and by the way, just to be absolutely clear, NEW JERSEY IS NOT THE HIGHEST SPENDING STATE IN THE NATION! https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/10/04/state-ranking-madness-who-spends-mostleast/

Posted in: Jersey, Reformy