N.J. Governor Chris Christie Signs Teacher Tenure Reform Law

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Governor Chris Christie

Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) signed a bill Monday making it more difficult for teachers to receive tenure.

The bill, though hotly debated in New Jersey’s legislature, was a rare example of bipartisanship:

Gov. Chris Christie today signed a contentious bill aimed at toughening the path to tenure for the state’s public school teachers, hailing it as a rare sign of bipartisanship.

Christie acknowledged the crucial role the teachers’ unions played in getting the bill passed, and he thanked them.

“The fact of that matter is nothing gets done without their input, support and their help,” he said. “I know it’s not everything they wanted to have happen, and it wasn’t everything that I wanted to have happen.”

Teachers will have to wait at least four years instead of three — and they will have to earn consistently good grades — to gain tenure. Conversely, they can face firing of they get poor evaluations.

However, seniority still has its privileges under the law. New Jersey continues to be one of only 11 states with a last-in, first-out policy for teachers in the event of layoffs.

Christie wanted to eliminate those protections, but agreed to the compromise, which was embraced by the teachers’ union.

“This is indeed a historic day,” Christopher Cerf, the state education commissioner, said. “It proves education reform need not be a partisan issue.

In addition to the longer time required before receiving tenure, any N.J. teacher could be replaced after two years of negative reviews. New teachers would need to complete a one-year mentorship program and would have to receive two out of three years of positive reviews under a new evaluation system that takes student achievement into account. More on what the new tenure system requires can be found in this article.

The fact that teachers’ unions and school reformers came together to hammer out a compromise is promising. Many states award teacher tenure after only a one or two year probationary period. Tenure can make it very difficult for low-performing teachers to be replaced by schools, even if it would be in the best interest of students. In addition, many states require little or no merit-based achievements to receive tenure, just time on the job.

To be clear, this is undoubtedly a small victory for school reformers. Nevertheless, it’s a victory. As this bill impacts teachers and students over the next few years, hopefully it will turn out to be another small step toward closing the enormous achievement gap separating our nation’s low-income and more affluent students.

Harlem Children’s Zone: Geoffrey Canada’s Efforts to Break Generational Poverty from the Start

This post is part of this month’s “What’s Going Right in Public Education” series, highlighting achievements and forward-thinking ideas happening now in education policy, law, and practice.

A great deal of today’s knowledge on the benefits of early childhood education stems from a research project commenced nearly fifty years ago in a small Michigan town called Ypsilanti.

The Perry Preschool Project, developed by a school administrator named David Weikart, examines the lives of 123 African Americans born into poverty in the late 1950s that were “at high risk of failing school”:

From 1962–1967, at ages 3 and 4, the subjects were randomly divided into a program group that received a high-quality preschool program based on HighScope’s participatory learning approach and a comparison group who received no preschool program. In the study’s most recent phase, 97% of the study participants still living were interviewed at age 40. Additional data were gathered from the subjects’ school, social services, and arrest records.

The preschool program had an academic focus, aiming to teach low-income students some of the basic skills needed for success in the early grades. Teachers also focused on the students’ cognitive development. Students in the “preschool” group were active participants in their education. The study is innovative because it is still yielding data; every few years, researchers interview and track down data about the program’s participants. At age 40, the contrast between the “non-preschool” and “preschool” groups is staggering (see graph below).

Source: HighScope (http://www.highscope.org/)

HighScope has also put together an excellent video and a comprehensive report about their research results for their Perry Preschool Project participants through age 40. For those interested, the HighScope website has a wealth of detail about the lives of the participants. In sum, the results show that participants in the “preschool” program group have performed better throughout their formal education, have made more money at work, and have had more stable family lives.

Why is all of this important? Despite these stunningly clear findings, legislatures across the country still don’t establish and fund proper early childhood programs. Programs like those studied in the Perry Preschool Project can help low-income students compete with their more affluent peers if the support continues throughout their education. In 1965, the federal government allocated Head Start funding for states. However, the recent economic downturn made abundantly clear that pre-kindergarten and early childhood education programs are often the first programs to be cut. Pre-K and similar programs are often seen as “optional.” Families in some cities are even having difficulty enrolling their children in kindergarten programs, which are considered optional under the law in many states (including Texas).

In 1997, Geoffrey Canada took matters into his own hands. He founded Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), an organization that pulls together all of the educational and social services that could help low-income families in one Harlem neighborhood. Canada’s program, the focus of the recent documentary Waiting for Superman and Paul Tough’s book Whatever It Takes, serves families inside a 97-block Harlem neighborhood (called a “promise neighborhood”). The premise of HCZ is that kids born into poverty need support from cradle-to-college (and beyond). Therefore, HCZ focuses on the entire family and all of the issues that burden the typical low-income communities. HCZ’s “umbrella” services start at birth and go above and beyond any traditional educational program.

Since founding Harlem Children’s Zone in 1997, Canada has started charter schools in his Harlem neighborhood. However, he also serves families whose children attend other area schools (as long as they are in the 97-block radius). David Brooks has written in the NY Times about the dramatic gains achieved by students attending HCZ schools and/or receiving HCZ services:

Forgive some academic jargon, but the most common education reform ideas — reducing class size, raising teacher pay, enrolling kids in Head Start — produce gains of about 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.3 standard deviations. If you study policy, those are the sorts of improvements you live with every day. Promise Academy produced gains of 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations. That’s off the charts. In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students. Let me repeat that. It eliminated the black-white achievement gap.

Geoffrey Canada has found an approach to educating low-income students that works. Canada has found a way to break the cycle of poverty.

The most impressive part of Canada’s story is that much of his funding comes from private sources. Canada’s groundbreaking success has come without endless amounts of taxpayer dollars funding his program.

Now, Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone has finally started to catch the attention of national policymakers. Several years ago, President Obama approved grants for 20 cities to establish “promise neighborhoods” in areas with especially high-need. Neighborhood Centers, Inc. has led Houston’s “promise neighborhood” in a 3.7 square mile section of the Gulfton area. Results from Houston’s “promise neighborhood” are starting to trickle in, and it looks good for kids involved with the program.