Teachers make a compelling argument that it is neither fair, nor particularly effective, to tie their salaries solely to student performance on standardized tests. Schools are not factories. Teachers do not have total control over their "product." Motivation, parents, socioeconomic factors all play key roles in student performance. And teachers who do focus solely on test scores - teaching to the test - simply shortchange their students.
But having said that, holding teachers more accountable, making tenure harder to get and creating financial incentives for excellence in the classroom are reasonable goals that would improve schools anywhere. Under New Jersey's 100-year-old teacher tenure system, only 17 of the state's 100,000 tenured teachers have been dismissed in the last 10 years. Everyone - including teachers - knows there are more lazy, ineffective teachers than that.
The problem is how to reconcile those two paragraphs above.
Last week, however, Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf laid down the groundwork for what seems to be a sensible middle ground. And refreshingly, he did it with none of the bombast of his boss, Gov. Chris Christie.
Cerf, who called teachers "saints," proposed a system that would reward teachers for good student performance, for teaching difficult subjects and for teaching in impoverished schools. Tenure would not be abolished under his proposal, but it would not be automatic.
Cerf proposed a new evaluation system that would grade teachers as "highly effective," "effective," "partially effective" or "ineffective." Those ratings would be based half on test scores and half on other factors, including more intensive in-room evaluations by principals.
Salaries would be based on these evaluations. And rather than award tenure automatically after three years, which is the current system, tenure would be awarded only after three consecutive years of "highly effective" or "effective" ratings. Teachers could also lose tenure after repeated poor evaluations. Any layoffs would be based on performance, not seniority.
This is a good start for the conversation New Jersey needs to have.
Cerf was quickly criticized by the New Jersey Education Association and some Democratic lawmakers. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, said improving underperforming schools was "more complicated than throwing around slogans."
But that's exactly what Cerf did not do - throw around slogans.
Certainly, none of this is easy. Cerf acknowledged standardized tests might have to be reworked to be fairer to teachers. And certainly, teachers must be protected from school-board politics and a principal's mood on the morning he or she evaluates a teacher. But Cerf has presented a calm, nuanced approach that does not bash teachers or rely on overheated rhetoric. Let's just hope his bombastic boss can handle that.