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In New Jersey, a year makes quite a difference

By Kathleen Nugent, DFER NJ State Director

Sometimes it's hard to realize progress when you're caught up in the daily grind. You tend to take for granted where you are since the focus is always on what's next. So, this post is a glance back at where we were a year ago in three priority areas in New Jersey education: tenure reform, leadership at the NJ Department of Education, and the search for Newark Public Schools' superintendent.

1) New Jersey's tenure reform debate

On December 9, 2010, Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), Chairwoman of the NJ Senate Education Committee, held the state's first-ever hearing on tenure reform. Although conversations on tenure reform today are commonplace in New Jersey, there was no substantive discussion of it before Ruiz's hearing.

Witnesses at the hearing included officials from NJ Department of Education (NJDOE), Colorado state Senator Michael Johnston (sponsor of Colorado's "Great Teachers and Great Leaders" bill - aka SB 191, considered to be one of the strongest teacher evaluation and tenure reform bills in the nation), TNTP's Executive Vice President and General Counsel Daniel Weisberg, and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), among others. A few highlights from the day's testimony:

• The NJDOE stated there were 35 tenure cases open in 2008, which equated to less than two cases for every 10,000 educators;

• Senator Johnston noted the impact of a highly effective teacher is 2.5 times greater than class size reductions. According to Johnston, under the new teacher evaluation system in Colorado, tenure will be a "badge of honor;"

• Daniel Weisberg summarized findings from a national survey which showed that district evaluations typically fail to differentiate between teachers and do not provide useful feedback or support. He urged that a fair and credible evaluation system must be in place to measure performance, provide teachers with quality feedback, reward excellence, and address the small percentage of persistently poor-performing teachers;

• The NJEA asserted that a process was already in place to remove a teacher if a district believed he or she was not performing up to its standards. They outlined a few suggestions for improvement including a state-mandated and funded mentoring program for new teachers.

Fast forward to today... Senator Ruiz, after diligent research and broad stakeholder engagement, introduced her tenure reform bill called TEACHNJ in June. TEACHNJ ties tenure acquisition and retention to effectiveness, empowers principals by giving them more authority over staff in their schools, ends seniority-based layoffs for new hires, and overall outlines the foundation for a system that would greatly elevate the teaching profession in New Jersey. At the same time, the NJEA introduced a revised education reform agenda building from its previous testimony. Last but not least, the state, under the leadership of Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf, launched a new pilot educator evaluation system.

2) The New Jersey Department of Education's leadership

After a series of setbacks around New Jersey's Race to the Top application in 2010, the state embarked on a national search for a new commissioner of education and on January 18, 2011, swore in Christopher Cerf as Acting Commissioner.

For the last 11 months, Cerf has focused on advancing several priority initiatives at the NJDOE including capacity building in key offices through reorganization and the strategic placement of leaders and, per above, launched a new pilot educator evaluation, which is now underway in 11 school districts and will have a statewide rollout starting in the 2012-2013 school year.

One of the greatest strengths of the pilot is the meaningful engagement of teachers and administrators who will help determine what the final system will look like. Key education stakeholders such as the NJEA and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are at the table providing real-time feedback on the system's design. Pilot districts must adhere to a core set of principles (e.g., student achievement measured by growth, not an either-or cut score; multiple measures; evaluation used to tailor professional development), but have ample flexibility to innovate and implement a framework that best meets their needs.

A year ago, we had a binary evaluation system that did not consider student achievement and provided no helpful feedback to educators. We also had no tangible plans for the system's improvement. While there is still much work to be done, action this year has laid the foundation for fundamental systemic change over the next two to three years.

3) Selection of new superintendent for Newark Public Schools

At this time last year, state and local leaders were gearing up to make one of the most important decisions for Newark's future. We at DFER, along with education reformers in and outside of government, felt strongly that the city's students deserved a bold and courageous leader who would set and execute a clear plan for reforming the public schools. With the selection of Cami Anderson several months later on May 4th, students received a fierce champion of their needs. Supt. Anderson has had a successful and busy start to her term, just several months long so far.

In closing, we're just at the beginning of many of these opportunities. Nevertheless, the progress is encouraging. As we've seen from the last 12 months, New Jersey education is dynamic. With strong leaders in place and a committed base of reformers statewide, a year from today offers tremendous potential.

Prior to joining DFER in February 2010, Kathleen Nugent supported the growth of TEAM Charter Schools, the region of KIPP schools in Newark, New Jersey, for almost two years in their development department. Before TEAM, Kathleen worked at The MCJ Amelior Foundation for five years. Read more about Kathleen here.