So. What have we learned?
Standardized testing is generally bad for students, expensive, unreliable and biased. It is a terrible tool for evaluating teacher effectiveness. No parent would ever want their child’s entire academic identity to be boiled down to one single test on one single day. Who even likes these tests? Not the administrators. Not the teachers. Not the students. But despite that, stacks of bubble sheets, in all of their irrelevance, should be used for making staff decisions in our schools? Even though the folks who design the tests explicitly say that they should not be used for that purpose? And what about those who teach art, music or physical education? The question itself is arbitrary and absurd: “What percentage of teacher evaluation should be based on standardized test scores?” The clear answer for any serious educator or statistician is “zero.”
Teachers are critical to the academic success of young people in New Jersey. But teachers are not the most influential factor in student achievement. It simply doesn’t matter how “good” a teacher is – a child with a troubled home life (a.k.a. real life for many students) cannot simply walk into a classroom and leave behind the baggage of abuse, neglect, addiction, poverty, or broken family, or any other number of issues faced by students in New Jersey’s most challenging districts. Imagine a student who comes from another country, already deficient in their own native language. Is a “good” teacher able to magically whip the kid up to baseline levels within ten months? Oh, and there are 25 other kids in the class, too. Sometimes the “reformers'” plans make it sound like Special Education and ELL (English Language Learners) don’t even exist. So think back, to the teachers that meant something to you, the ones who you think were truly “good.” Is it because they helped you fill in the right bubbles, or because they taught, helped you think and grow into a more complete person? Teachers cannot eliminate poverty or other forces that wield definitive influence over the lives of many of New Jersey’s school-aged children. They should not be expected to, or paid accordingly.
Tenure is not a “job for life,” and merit pay would quickly denigrate the quality of education in New Jersey’s outstanding public schools. Parents want the teachers in their kids’ schools to be collaborative, where good ideas are shared and colleagues help one another be better at their craft. This is the opposite of what you get with “merit” pay, which would drive the most effective teachers to keep their methods and materials off limits so as not to jeopardize their chances of getting bonuses. And hey, those older, experienced teachers, who really know what they’re doing – they are EXPENSIVE. So being able to fire them arbitrarily would be helpful in terms of getting some young, inexperienced, “energetic,” and most importantly CHEAP new teachers in front of everyone’s kids. Don’t we want a “great” teacher in every classroom? But wait – it seems like paying the “great” teachers more could get really expensive if we have too many of them. And hey, wait a minute – isn’t the entire premise of merit pay based on the assumption that standardized test results are a good measure of teacher effectiveness? We know that just isn’t the case. Unless, of course, NJ wants a system designed to be run mostly on the backs of young, inexperienced, and most importantly inexpensive, folks. Hey, they may not be “great,” but they also probably won’t be teaching four years later. No harm, no foul, right?
Teachers’ unions are essential to the strength and success of public schools. The bill of goods sold to many by Chris Christie and others is simply and verifiably not true. States without unionized teaching forces score significantly lower on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) than those states whose teachers have the right to bargain collectively. Why is that? Because the work environment for educators directly affects the education received by students. And while “reformers” like Chris Christie want the public to believe that teachers’ unions negotiate gold-plated benefits for their members, the facts remain indisputable: Teachers work longer hours than any other profession in the country. Teachers make on average 67% of similarly educated professionals, and in the past 20 years, teacher pay has risen more slowly than that of any other profession. States without binding teacher contracts are among the lowest performers in the nation. Teachers’ unions are not a roadblock to student learning – they are a driver of it.
Charter schools, on average, simply don’t do a better job educating children. School vouchers have failed time and time again, and are widely considered to be something of a dubious scheme. Because many charters have selective populations (no Special Education or English Language Learners, fewer poor students) and high attrition rates, it’s easy to argue that, on average, charters actually do a worse job educating children. Reformers don’t want you to know that, of course, which is why they positively dread the realm of research-based decision-making. They don’t want you to know that charters can “counsel out” (fire) students who might drag down test scores. That charters report lower expenses because they don’t have to offer many services public schools do, like in-class support, Special Education, counseling, and so on. Reformers also don’t want the public to truly understand the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a.k.a. the school voucher bill. Why? Because it will cost local school districts hundreds of millions of dollars, all while chasing a promise that has been proven hollow time and time again, in places like Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and especially Milwaukee, where 21 years of student vouchers didn’t put even the smallest dent in the achievement gap. Charter schools and vouchers are marketing gimmicks used by education reformers to sell their ideas to an unwitting public. To anyone who has done the research, it’s clear – vouchers and the expansion of charter schools will not improve education in New Jersey. In fact, they stand to do more harm than good.
So there you have it. No doubt, there are many voices competing for attention in education reform debate, in New Jersey and across the United States. But despite the rhetoric and passion, it should be noted that serious, professional, quantitative and qualitative studies are not in short supply regarding these issues. New Jersey, in particular, is a peculiar flashpoint for this debate, because our public schools are among the very best in the nation, and our efforts to close the achievement gap are demonstrably successful. So New Jerseyans need to look long and hard at what Chris Christie, Derrell Bradford, Chris Cerf and other education reformers are proposing, and how those plans relate to what is already know about educating our children.
We at Blue Jersey hope that you found Ed Reform 101 informative and compelling. With so very much at stake – the future of our children, state, and greater society – it is, as the reformers often say, so important that we get this “right.” Unfortunately, as the content and links in this series demonstrate, it’s difficult to see where the Christie education reform agenda has anything to do with getting it right. In fact, the governor’s prescription is likely to leave public education in New Jersey as a shadow of its former greatness. We hope that everyone – journalists, parents, and especially those who think they support the Christie/Cerf/Bradford agenda – will read this series with an open mind and consider the incredibly persuasive materials presented within.
Stay tuned. In the coming days, we will be posting follow-up blogs from NJ Assembly candidate and teacher Marie Corfield, NYC parent and schools advocate Leonie Haimson, and esteemed education historian, policy expert, and former Assistant Secretary of Education) Dr. Diane Ravitch.