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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
A new covenant with NJ teachers?
Peter C. Hansen  (April 1, 2010, 1:13 pm)

Governor Christie is now pressing for a salary freeze for teachers, among other things. Once again, kudos for taking the fight for fiscal sanity forward! To be sure, salary freezes – like statutory or constitutional caps on taxes or spending – are blunt instruments and have serious drawbacks. They can, however, be useful for changing the "narrative" of the present system. One of the traditional purposes of any comprehensive legislation is to make it impossible to work outside of the legislated set of parameters. The system's proponents try to make it impossible to articulate an alternative.

When the system becomes so complex and oppressive that all avenues of basic reform are closed off, the only way to effect changes – even urgently needed ones – is by the crude blow that ignores the system's "narrative." Christie has struck such a blow, and he can now expect to have a wave of opprobrium fall upon him. (For a very colorful example, check out this PolitickerNJ report on the NJ teachers' extraordinarily profane Facebook page.) The teacher's union will do its utmost to reimpose its narrative about NJ education, which will over time lead to a renewed status quo ante. Christie must not give in to this demand. Having started the fight, he has before him only victory or lasting political shame. (See Arnold Schwarzenegger for the latter.) To win, Christie has to permanently change the narrative of the NJ education system. Here are a few ideas for such a new covenant that centers on truly professionalizing teachers.

First, reform credentials, hiring and firing. Right now, teaching is a more of a silly cult than a profession. To advance or even simply join up, one usually has to obtain "education" degrees which no one outside teaching respects as a substantive degree. These "degrees" are often just certificates for learning the latest fads. Why not instead have a public examination whereby all comers can obtain a teaching certificate if they are able to demonstrate: (1) basic classroom competencies in front of an evaluation jury (such as presenting an authoritative figure and resolving student disputes); and, for the higher grades, (2) advanced knowledge of the field they seek to teach? The successful candidate's scores can also be disclosed for hiring-evaluation purposes. Then allow the licensees to be hired and fired at will by any public school, at market wages and with a portable (preferably 401(k)) pension system. This would widen the field to a vast talent market, and should not threaten properly skilled teachers now in place (including those with education degrees). It rewards actual knowledge of taught subjects and in-class capabilities, rather than time-serving. It also allows burned-out teachers to leave or be dismissed rather than be foisted upon classes year after year so that they can reach a pension.

Second, make teaching truly teacher-centered. After being hired with a scored examination-based certificate, a teacher should be able to make the classroom truly his or her own. After getting some basic ground rules on discipline, equal treatment and such, the teacher should be free to choose any course curriculum, materials and teaching style which he or she prefers. Students will be tested at the start of the course, and so long as the students can show sufficiently increasing proficiency on a standard test at periodic intervals, the school should simply let the teacher go. At the end of each testing period, the teacher will receive an automated evaluation showing student improvement rates. To this can be added a subjective set of responses from a survey of students and parents. This would resemble a "360" report in use for managers at places like the World Bank. The evaluations can then be published on the school's website, and parents can freely move their children between classes (or even schools) at regular intervals. This system would provide a massive amount of market data, allow salaries to be based on a teacher's desirability for students and parents, and let the market in students determine teacher retention rather than cumbersome civil-service rules or politics in the administrative office.

Third, encourage the teacher's union to foster competition. It is not implausible to have a teacher's union support competition between teachers and schools. It merely requires the union to see it as a new way to raise salaries. Teaching has for far too long been treated as a factory job – one puts in years producing widgets as directed, and in return one gets a set wage and a set pension. This is a ridiculous arrangement for true professionals, and it prevents widespread educational dynamism and experimentation because it welcomes mediocrity. If the above-described reforms are established, then crummy teachers can be quickly kicked or bought out. Without having to protect the lousy, unions can refocus on playing schools off against each other to raise wages and improve conditions to attract teachers. Unions could also take an active role in recruiting great teachers to have examples for why wages should rise. Finally, unions could work on having subsidies given to poor areas to attract highly skilled teachers who would otherwise be snatched up by rich districts or who would otherwise avoid the poor district (perhaps by working in another field). This sort of market subsidy would replace the blunt instrument of largely untraced state aid to Abbott districts.

I am a proud product of the New Jersey public schools (K through 12). Some of my teachers were truly exceptional, many were very good, some were mediocre and a few were placeholders. I have no hostility to NJ teachers, but I do find the NJ teachers' union to be a dead weight that helps the worst teachers and encourages the worst sort of factory-teaching. We need to liberate teachers, who should be given all the perks, responsibilities and risks of true professionals. This will encourage skill, devotion and merit, and will benefit NJ kids, which is what the debate should ultimately be about.