Governor drops poll-killing tough talk while political action committee funds ad campaign against teacher tenure
At a hush-hush political gathering in Vail, Colo. on June 26, Gov. Chris Christie told an audience of Republican conservatives of the New Jersey Education Association that he abhors, “That’s where we head next,” he said. “We need to take on the teachers’ union once and for all, and we need to decide who is determining our children’s future, who is running this place. Them or us. I say it’s us.”
TRANSCRIPT: Gov. Chris Christie keynote address at the Koch Brothers’ 2011 Summer Seminar
Over two months later, Christie has lowered his voice and his verbal attacks on the union appear to have stopped — the tough-talking Jersey Guy routine was hurting him in the polls, especially with women. Instead, the governor this week is visiting with teachers and students in their schools to explain his public education platform, which includes changing the way teachers are evaluated. At a meeting at Roy W. Brown Middle School in Bergenfield on Wednesday, Christie never raised his voice and addressed female teachers as ma’m.
Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary, was asked what’s become of the tough talk.
“We’re not focused on doing battle with adults, except to the extent they stand in the way,” Drewniak said. “The governor and the proposed reforms are focused on children and quality educational outcomes for them, no matter where they live, and ensuring they are prepared for college and careers.”
Steve Wollmer, NJEA communications director, said the tough talk has faded because Christie helped create the Better Education for Kids political action committee that in late June launched a $1 million TV ad and direct mail campaign to promote governor’s proposal for teacher evaluation based on student test scores and tenure, “put students first,“ and take on what it considers the biggest opponent to change — the 195,501-member and politically-powerful teachers’ union.
The group’s founders are David Tepper, head of Appaloosa Management, a multi-billion hedge fund, and Alan Fournier, head of another hedge fund, Pennant Capital Management.
Everyone has noticed the intensity has dropped,” Wollmer said. “For one, polling data is driving the governor to behave better. He is seen as failing on education and that’s not good. There is a huge gender gap with women — mothers with kids in public schools — and 70 percent of teachers are women. And two, what Better Education for Kids is doing is essentially providing cover for the governor through direct mail attacking tenure. The governor can sit back and watch the movie and let them do the work.”
Wollmer said the NJEA is taking Better Education for Kids and Christie’s relationship with David and Charles Koch, the multi-billionaire conservatives who hosted the Vail event seriously.
“He wanted to put us in our place,” Wollmer said of Christie‘s remarks at Vail. The union official then added, “The Koch brothers are as far right as you can get. They have made no secret of wanting to eliminate unions. They went into Wisconsin and worked with the governor there and took away union rights.
“If Chris Christie is a friend of the Kochs, we take it very seriously,” Wollmer said. “The governor has said he tried to meet with the NJEA. He refused too. He is not interested in meeting with us. He is interested in destroying the rights of organized labor. He wants to destroy labor and the laws that define labor.”
In Bergenfield, one of 10 school districts selected by the state Department of Education to share $1.1 million to fund a pilot teacher evaluation system, Christie said, “The biggest problem in education is our comfort level. We need to push our adults (teachers) to do better before we can expect them to push our children.”
In the 10 districts and Newark, teachers are being judged half on student academic performance and half on classroom observations. The governor hopes to see the evaluation system go statewide with the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. The new evaluation system would affect tenure, salary or job security.
The NJEA opposes evaluating teachers on students’ classroom performance such as test scores because, Wollmer said, any number of factors, including a troubled home life, disinterested parents and health and nutrition, can affect a child’s learning ability.
“If they are willing to be partners in real reform, they will have a seat at the table,” Christie said of NJEA in Bergenfield. “They have a seat at the table on this.”
The way Wollmer sees it, the governor’s comment was a way of painting the NJEA as uncooperative.
“We are involved,” he said. “We‘ve advised our locals and staff to be players and get involved and see how this is going to play out and going to affect on members. We are at the table. Our concern is the governor‘s insistence on the ability to improve student test scores as a way to evaluate teachers. There are too many factors outside a teacher’s control that affect scores.
Wollmer said the union’s professional development and research staff has been working with DOE Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf and his staff on improving course content standards for students. “The people at DOE were very open about welcoming our input,” he said.
“We have sent a clear signal to the commissioner’s office that we are willing to work together,” Wollmer said. “But if the goal (of the governor) is to smash the union and take away people’s rights against unfair dismissal, if that is what he is going to come out, that’s a clear indication the gloves are off again.“
In Bergenfield, Christie said, “New Jersey ranks among the top states in the nation in student achievement according to a number of measures, and we owe all of our teachers a tremendous debt of gratitude for their hard work and dedication. The reforms we are pursuing make the talent and effectiveness of our educators a top priority. It is past time that our education system allows us to identify and reward good teachers with better pay and career opportunities, help those who are struggling, and provide a pathway to remove those who aren’t meeting the standards our children need and deserve.
“Districts taking part in a teacher evaluation pilot like Bergenfield are providing the leadership needed to ensure that we have teacher evaluation systems that treat teachers with the respect and recognition they deserve for the great work they do every day for our children,” the governor said.
Christie said part of his Building Block for Success platform includes rewarding quality teachers, providing support to those who need improvement, and removing “those comparatively few” who are unable to improve.
The governor wants evaluations to focus on results for children, a system of compensation that rewards effective teachers, expanded opportunities for top teachers, including new career ladders and preparation programs, and change the tenure system ‘to ensure fairness and effectiveness.’
“Research shows that the quality of a teacher in front of the classroom is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning,” Cerf said. “That’s why we must ensure that we have a teacher evaluation system that fairly and meaningfully measures teacher performance and is centered first and foremost on helping all teachers, regardless of their level, constantly improve their practice. Current evaluations fall far short of this goal. Reviews, if conducted at all, are often perfunctory, based on unclear standards and frequently bear little relationship to the central objective of good teaching — advancing student learning.”
Here, in the words of the governor’s office, is how Christie wants teachers evaluated:
“Multiple measures approach to teacher evaluations: The Excellent Educators for teacher evaluation pilot program will evaluate teachers based on multiple measures of teacher practice and learning outcomes for students, with 50 percent associated with each, and never based on a single consideration much less a single test. Evaluations will be based on student progress versus absolute performance, will have a direct link between the results of the evaluation and professional development opportunities, and will have clear and consistent criteria both for teachers and evaluators.
“Dramatically reforming the tenure system to ensure fairness and effectiveness: The governor proposes changing the state’s antiquated tenure rules so that teachers will keep or receive tenure based on what matters the most – whether students are actually learning. Using a revamped teacher evaluation system, teachers should earn tenure if they are rated effective or highly-effective for three years in a row. If a teacher is found to be ineffective or partly effective for two consecutive years, they should lose the privilege of tenure.
“Reforming the compensation system to reward qualified and effective teachers: Currently, the only way for teachers to earn higher salaries is based on an additional year of service or credit accumulation – neither of which accurately measure teacher performance in a classroom. The governor’s proposal allows for differentiated pay for teachers, including merit pay for performance and additional incentives for teachers in hard-to-staff positions and the highest need schools.
“Expanding opportunities for great teachers to succeed: In addition to helping good teachers become great teachers, we must expand the opportunities that drive success in the classroom. The governor has proposed establishing new credentials and career ladders for teachers, expanding opportunities to receive updated certification, and strengthening training programs to ensure that all students have well-prepared teachers.”
“We have got plenty to say on reform issues,” Wollmer said. “But we are not responding to rhetoric. We will respond with research on merit pay and tenure reforms and evaluations based on test scores. We look forward to talking to people based on research.”
Wollmer said the NJEA has proposed the use of an arbitrator in any effort to dismiss a teacher. He said Christie is wrong in telling the public it is virtually impossible to fire a bad teacher. “Every year a countless number of teachers are dismissed,” he said. The (local school) administration goes to them and says here is what you need to do to improve. If that doesn’t work, they sit down and negotiate a graceful departure. But if they are trying to dismiss based on flimsy evidence, that should be done in court. The law allows for that.
“What they want to do is basically do away with tenure and pack the teacher rolls with their friends and break the union,” Wollmer said. “We will defend our people if they are unfairly persecuted.”