Asking Gov. Christie to speak at a university commencement exercise is a bit like inviting Charlie Sheen to speak at an AA convention. You just don't do it. Not when the choice of commencement speaker is always a statement about what a university values.
It's hard to imagine a more anti-education, anti-teacher leader than Gov. Christie. But I want to be clear at the outset: I don't believe he is intentionally against public schools; I simply believe that his policies are ideologically driven, not empirically driven, and should not be supported. In other words, it's nothing personal.
Of course his tax cuts most directly and egregiously affect children's education, from increasing class size to placing a greater financial burden on students enrolled in New Jersey colleges, from eliminating a variety of programs to cutting arts education, from cutting all sports in some school districts to requiring students to pay for their own sports equipment in others.
But perhaps the act that most clearly reveals Gov. Christie's values is his decision early in his administration to cut school budgets instead of raise taxes on the wealthiest people in the state. An opinion piece in the May 1 New York Times puts Gov. Christie's policy in perspective. Eggers and Calegari explain that, in a nation where 46% of new teachers quit the profession before their fifth year, two of the biggest reasons are teacher support and salary. In contrast to the U.S., they say, annual turnover rates in South Korea, Finland, and Singapore are 1 percent, 2 percent, and 3 percent, respectively. In Finland and Singapore, which have among the best schools in the world, teachers receive pay for training. Not so in the U.S., where official training ends after receiving a degree. Although teacher salaries are better than they used to be in some parts of the country, some sectors of the workforce have benefited far more than others. For example, the average salary difference between a first-year teacher and first-year lawyer was only $2,000 in 1970; today it's $106,000. Gov. Christie's decision about taxation, which exacerbates income inequality, is simply part of a larger pattern of forces that drive income inequality and that increasingly devalue public investment in education, health, and the environment. In addition to making cuts in education, Gov. Christie talks disparagingly about teachers, saying in his state of the state speech in January, "The time to eliminate teacher tenure is now" and characterizing the state teachers union as a "group of political thugs." From talking to New Jersey high school teacher friends, I know that the NJEA can be too narrowly focused on protecting their own, but when Gov. Christie stridently denounces educators, he creates a climate in which educational change will not flourish. As any good teacher knows, punishing a child does not make him learn any better. The same is true of teachers. Punishing us doesn't inspire us to make the tough decisions to create positive reform.
Gov. Christie's specific proposals for change appear to be driven by beliefs, not data. For example, few people disagree with the idea that good teaching should be rewarded, but the governor puts testing and competition at the heart of teacher tenure and promotion when test results are not reliably tied to teacher effectiveness, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Panelists at a recent symposium entitled "Standardized Tests and Teacher Accountability: The Research," hosted by the Educational Testing Service also challenged test scores as a basis for promotion. Increased emphasis on testing will further skew how much time teachers teach to the curricular goals instead of teaching more narrowly to the test, and it will make teachers shy away from teaching students with the greatest learning challenges. As for merit pay, research on the benefits for students has been mixed. Moreover, teachers are understandably nervous about it. If they have no say in the system that may determine their financial success, they will understandably be defensive. Invidiously casting "bad teachers" against the "good ones" who deserve merit pay damages morale and hence collaboration. Although schools like Denver's have had some real success with merit pay, it may largely be because the terms of the agreement were worked out collaboratively between teachers' representatives and district administrators. Top-down edicts coming from the governor's office are hardly likely to inspire confidence, much less success.
Gov. Christie still says he thinks "teachers in New Jersey in the main are wonderful public servants that care deeply," but we have a responsibility to examine the effects that his policies are likely to have on those who have chosen to serve. To balance the budget on the backs of teachers and educational programs when our nation needs to support both, and to whip teachers into shape through reliance on test results and merit pay instead, simply doesn't square with the research, no matter how "right" it feels.
Seton Hall University sends a message to all by the company it chooses to keep and, in so doing, weakens its own mission. Maybe next year we can make up for it by inviting a real educational leader.
Associate Professor of Writing, English DepartmentThe Setonian welcomes letters to the editor. All submissions must include the authors first and last name and a phone number where the author can be reached. Submissions should be no more than 400 words. The Setonian reserves the right to edit submissions for style. Deadline for submission is noon on the Tuesday preceding publication. Letters can be emailed to Brenden Higashi, Community & Opinion Editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.