We are a month into the 2016-2017 school year in New Jersey. Public school children across the Garden State have met their new teachers and learned the expectations for the year. My teacher friends (many of whom are former students) have set up their classrooms, welcomed their students, and begun the long process of getting to know the young people in their care and helping them learn. In many of these schools, veteran teachers have welcomed student teachers as well, slowly giving them more responsibility as they begin the most intensive part of their preparation to become licensed teachers themselves. After years of studying both pedagogy and content, of combining that knowledge in planning for both learning and assessment of learning, and of demonstrating their combined skills in supervised field placements, these young people are ready to take the final steps on their journeys.
In my own classes, I have had the great pleasure of welcoming the Class of 2020 to their first class in our teacher preparation program. I have to be honest: after 23 years of teaching at every level from seventh grade to graduate school classes, this is my favorite time of any year. My students are both excited and nervous, and they are only just beginning to learn what it means to become a teacher. After thousands and thousands of hours of watching teachers teach, they have a great deal to learn about what goes into that work that they never saw, and they will have to learn how to translate their passion for their content and for learning into effective teaching. They also happen to be great people, a conclusion I draw basically every year. My students are bright, passionate, diligent, incredibly hard working, selfless, and they are giving up many of the traditional distractions of college life for their chosen profession. This time with us in university based teacher preparation is really a gift. Sandwiched between their thirteen years in K-12 classrooms and their future decades of work in a profession of millions, we have four short years to help them get their career journey off to a great start.
So I really have to ask you, Governor Christie: Exactly from where do you think our future teachers are going to come?
This is no idle question at this point. Concerns about the teacher pipeline have been brewing for some time, and while the phenomenon is complex, there is also no doubt that we’ve made it much harder for young people to imagine a positive future as a teacher:
And we have to admit that Governor Chris Christie has been a leader in this trend since he began his time in office. Chris Christie ran for office promising teachers to leaves their pensions alone, a promise he swiftly broke with a pension reform bill that he has steadfastly refused to fund – even as he turned the state’s pension fund over to Wall Street buddies who tripled fees without improving returns. Governor Christie slashed school aid and has never fully restored it, leaving districts underfunded according to the state’s own school aid law.
While financial esoterica may escape the attention of today’s school children – although the cumulative impact of $6 billion of lost funding surely has an impact – Governor Christie’s continued and vicious attacks on the Garden State’s teachers is impossible to ignore. Governor Christie plainly hates the New Jersey Education Association, having opened his failed candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination by saying NJEA needs to be “punched in the face,” but the governor takes that hatred out in public on any teacher who dares to stand up for her profession while he slathers contempt upon the state’s schools and teachers. Governor Christie has accused the state’s teachers of using their students like “drug mules” for a civics lesson, and he has whined that the NJEA claimed that he hates children for a fairly mild billboard:
He has screamed at a teacher in public for daring to question him:
And he has pretty much consistently disparaged teachers as doing a terrible job and implying the 180 day official school year means they have pretty cushy jobs compared to other professionals:
So even by Chris Christie’s appalling standards, his “welcome message” for the 2016-2017 school year was almost shocking. After a summer where New Jersey’s teachers and students found out that the PARCC examination will become the sole test accepted for completion of high school and that 30% of teacher evaluations will be tied to discredited value added measures based on those tests, Governor Christie held an hour long rant where he signed some education legislation – and compared New Jersey’s teacher union to the Corleone family. Clearly not satisfied with mere insults, he has gone on to press New Jersey’s Supreme Court to let him and his education commissioner – he’s on his fifth one since David Hespe quit shortly before the mafia comments – to break labor agreements and state law at will in the state’s Abbott Districts. These are the poorest districts in the state that the state is required to give supplemental funding – and which Governor Christie wants to throw under the literal bus by seizing that funding so he can make good on a long broken promise of property tax relief for the suburbs.
Let’s be crystal clear on this: Governor Christie wants to be freed from the various Abbott decisions and the legal requirement that Trenton give supplemental funding to the state’s neediest students. And at the same time, he wants the state Supreme Court to allow him to rule those same districts he plans to defund by breaking contracts at will and ignoring state tenure laws. S0 – he doesn’t want to pay AND he wants to break contracts and rules on his say so with no accountability.
I guess all the time he has been spending with Donald Trump, who has a track record of not paying bills and stiffing people in contracts, has really rubbed off on New Jersey’s Governor.
Which brings me back to my question again: From where does Governor Christie expect the future teachers in New Jersey to come? Those future teachers are currently in New Jersey’s K-12 schools watching a governor compare their teachers to organized criminals and proposing to make vast swaths of them into at will employees while criminally underfunding their schools. They have been watching him for a good portion of their K-12 education as he’s slashed school funding statewide and insulted the work ethic of teachers in every corner of the state. They’ve watched as he’s lashed out at anyone who dares to question his rhetoric about teachers. They watched as he’s forced more and more emphasis on state tests and as he cruelly derided a bill meant to guarantee that our youngest children have recess.
Paradoxically, Governor Christie’s administration has made it harder to become a teacher in New Jersey, increasing the GPA for prospective teachers and expanding student teaching to a full year experience. In addition, entering candidates must either pass a “basic skills” assessment or be in the top third of SAT or ACT test takers, and in addition to the traditional licensure exam upon graduation, candidates will have to pass EdTPA, an external performance assessment that costs $300 each time it is submitted.
Whether or not these are good or bad ideas is open for debate, but what is not open for debate is that Governor Christie is raising the bar substantially on who is even allowed to begin teacher training in New Jersey in the middle of an environment where he has derided the state’s teachers for years and where he is demanding the ability to both slash school funding and deny urban teachers their contracts as he sees fit. Jersey Jazzman astutely observes that these proposals will be of significant cost to New Jersey’s teachers of color, who disproportionately work in the Abbott districts, but nobody should assume that Governor Christie would settle for merely breaking the NJEA in the cities. He wants to be Scott Walker on the Delaware, and it will probably have similar consequences if he succeeds.
And we’re supposed to try to convince the top third of New Jersey’s high school students to become teachers under these circumstances.
Like I said – my students are passionate and dedicated. They love school. They love students. They love their subjects. Whether or not that love can be sustained and whether or not future students will have enough love to even consider teaching is an open question.