Tenure must be on the table in reform talks

CODA

GREG BEAN

One of the first columns I wrote after coming to work at Greater Media Newspapers was at the request of my youngest son, who was distraught that his favorite teacher had been denied tenure in East Brunswick and was losing his job.

My son was angry at the unfairness of the situation because this teacher had not only gone above and beyond the call of duty to help my child and many others learn the coursework for a difficult class — often on his own, unpaid time — he was the most popular young teacher at the school and students looked forward to learning in his classes.

My son simply could not understand why such an outstanding young teacher — a teacher who was doing everything right — would be fired for no apparent reason.

I tried to explain to him that what had happened to this teacher was one of the dirty secrets of public education in this state and many others.

Untenured, or so-called “probationary’ teachers, are paid less than tenured teachers, so for budgetary reasons school districts tend to hire a lot of them to fill their ranks and lead their classes. In New Jersey, however, nontenured teachers can work only for three years before their probationary periods are up.

To begin a fourth year, administrators and school boards must grant them tenure. But because districts severely limit the number of tenured teachers in their employ because they cost more, that means an annual bloodbath of teachers who are about to complete their third year. Many of those denied tenure are undoubtedly subpar teachers who should not be given protected career employment (although you have to wonder why so many of them last the full three years if their skills and classroom technique are flawed). But many of them are wonderful teachers — like my son’s — who have been used and abused in a callous ploy to save money, then set adrift to take their wonderful talents elsewhere (where they will hopefully be appreciated more).

Tenure laws were first enacted to protect teachers from political whim, institutional vendetta and arbitrary termination of employment. Those laws have protected many good teachers over the years, but almost everyone with knowledge or expert capacity (with the exception of most unions like the New Jersey Education Association) agrees that those same laws protect bad teachers as well, by making it difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of those who are not doing the job.

In practice, tenure laws often protect ineffective teachers at the high end of the pay scale and abuse probationary teachers at the low end.

In times of budgetary crisis and staff cutbacks— like we have seen across the state and region in the last few years — those same tenure laws mean that some of the best teachers are the first to lose their jobs.

A recent story about that unfortunate reality by The Wall Street Journal and many other news organizations focused on former Newark public school teacher Sauce Leon. Leon was nearing the end of his three-year probationary period, but had managed to rack up more accolades in that short span than many teachers do in a lifetime. He earned the rating of “distinguished,” which only about 15 percent of teachers in the system achieve, and he also earned the devotion of students and the respect of peers.

But when the district was forced to lay off 300 teachers last June, Leon was among those given their walking papers because the law said the last hired must be the first fired. Gone were many teachers like Leon. Still working were many tenured teachers with much poorer ratings (some even rated less than proficient). This outrageous event took place in a school system already so ineffective that nearly half of its 40,000 students won’t graduate, in spite of the fact that the systemspends $22,000 per student, more per-pupil expenditure than anywhere else in New Jersey.

Although Leon became the poster boy for this travesty (he’s now teaching in a charter school), his case was by no means unique. It has happened hundreds of times in New Jersey and thousands of times across the nation. And there is no way I can be convinced that students don’t suffer because of these gross inequities.

It’s a shameful system, and one that repeatedly came under attack during last week’s incredible Education Nation symposium sponsored by NBC. Who can forget the young teacher who stood up to the microphone and said, “I don’t understand tenure. I don’t see a need for it. I have a union rep in my school, and when I felt under attack she has been there to protect me, but I don’t need tenure for that. I’m going to go in and do a good job, and they’ll see that I’m doing a good job, and they’ll hire me again. I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me that I have to be hired each year.”

That was such a bombshell you could almost see the tenured teachers and union representatives in the live and home audiences reaching frantically for their nitroglycerine tablets.

It’s a shameful system that many, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, want to reform, as evidenced by his announcement of a six-point package Sept, 28 that included changes to current collective bargaining and tenure laws, as well as tying evaluations of teachers to the test scores of students.

Predictably, the NJEA slammed him in a press release the same day for “defunding” public schools and “demonizing” the people who work for them — without offering a single alternative, save the vague demand that more educators be brought into the process.

As Ronald Reagan said to Jimmy Carter, “There you go again.”

The union has lost so much credibility in this state that many voters figure that if the NJEA is against it, it must be an absolutely grand idea. And from where I sit, reforming New Jersey’s tenure laws is one of the best ideas for improving education I’ve heard this year.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.