Newark Public School Teachers: Why We Must Say No

I will make an additional $20,000 if the Union passes the contract on Wednesday. I will vote no. It’s not about the money.


Under the old contract, it wasn’t hard to abuse good teachers. Under this new system, the highest levels of unchecked disrespect are institutionalized. I personally understand how arbitrary evaluations can rip idealism and joy from teaching. The same year I coached my first New Jersey State Champion in debate and coached a debater who placed in the top 8 in the United States at the National High School Tournament of Champions, had 100 percent passing on the State Exam, had no behavior problems that had to be dealt with administratively, and wrote and received a $20,000 book grant for my school, I was labeled an unsatisfactory teacher and punished financially (increment denial).


Part of my department chair’s reason was that she claimed I was “not proficient in the English language.” I had to fight for six months, without union help, to get my pay and respect back. If not for former Newark Central Office administrator Gladys Hillman Jones, another current Newark administrator, who at the time had just arrived in Newark, and my former high school debate coach who happened to work in Central Office, I would not have been able to have the decision overturned, and I would have left teaching. The old system where that was allowed was far more objective than the system that would be in place if this destructive contract passes.


This contract institutionalizes a system of merit pay and punishment without giving any clear standard for getting either additionally paid or additionally punished.  The new teacher evaluation tool is laughably vague. How will your administrator determine whether some students are “enthusiastic” verses whether many students or few students or no students are enthusiastic? How is that measured objectively? We are not told how teachers will be chosen to be on an evaluation committee, but we are clearly told in the contract that this committee is only an advisory committee, and, like the Newark Advisory Board, it can be ignored. Without clear standards of evaluation our careers become political. Ironically, Newark’s version of merit pay guarantees that merit will be the least likely thing to determine your career’s future.


And when you are deemed partially effective or ineffective, our union will not be able to help you and the media will assume, like they do about everyone from Newark, that you are incompetent. The Star Ledger editorial board said as much when they implied that only ineffective teachers would resist such a contract. Ineffective, to them, simply means you disagree with their naive politics of reform.


Some level of academic freedom is necessary for us to effectively teach and advocate for students. Grades should not be political, but there is common administrative pressure to pass or fail students to appease parents or do favors for the politically connected or make the reports of the school look better. There is pressure to not complain when 40 students are placed in your class. There are times when teachers may need to advocate for students things that administrators and people who have not taught a class for years may not understand, but need to know. And then there are the administrators who are well meaning, but may simply disagree with you about what good teaching is. This contract institutionalizes an insidiously vague vision of teaching in a way where two well meaning people could simply disagree, without one being fully right; however, the teacher would have his pay limited and her work stigmatized.


This contract is rooted in a fundamental disrespect of our profession. That is why it does not differentiate between a BA, a Masters degree, or a Doctorate. Our contract institutionalizes contempt for classroom teachers with higher degrees. It says that the additional work that was done in your field is irrelevant. This type of thinking is, by definition, anti-educational. It replaces the long-term incentive for a classroom teacher to increase knowledge, pay, and institutional respect with the cynical, short-term politics of your school. If you do not have a great personal relationship with your department chair that year, you will not be highly effective. If you park in your administrator’s parking space one day, or disagree with them when advocating for a student, or dare complain about having forty students in your class, you may be deemed only partially effective. And what is worse is if we ratify this contemptible contract, we would be giving our consent.


For teachers who have been primarily concerned about money, a very modest pay increase, being placed on our proper steps, and some level of retroactive pay could be found through arbitration. Any additional pay promised in this contract can be taken from you in the future because we would have given up our rights. How much pressure will there be on administrators to find a certain number of teachers partially effective or ineffective? Our District teachers have been forced into a pay freeze for the past three years. There is no precedent for that. However, if we ratify this contract, we set contractual precedent for everything we hate: pseudo accountability, a neutered voice, and institutional disrespect embodied in the calculation that teachers would sell off all of our rights for partial pay. If we ratify this contract, arbitrary pay freezes for an administratively determined percentage of our membership could be the norm. It is easy to justify a “partially effective” label on a quality teacher at the wrong end of school politics.


If the District wants to institute merit pay in the future, at the very least they must first create objective standards for determining merit, if merit and “good teaching” is the intent. Unfortunately, I believe that the disrespectful nature of this contract can be seen in the same light as the continued disrespect of Newark residents in education. Predominately Black and Brown citizens of Newark are seen as too stupid to make decisions about education. That is why elected boards are ignored. The New Jersey Commissioner of education said in a recent editorial that Newark parents vote on education with their feet. Citizens don’t vote with their feet; they vote with their ballot in elections. The residents of Newark are not seen as citizens capable of deciding how to educate their children with an $800 million dollar budget, but as consumers who should choose from the choices created for them by people outside of their community. If our parents have been reduced from citizens to disrespected consumers, then this contract reduces us from professionals to “overpaid” workers who need our unions broken.


In Chicago, teachers fought for their communities and their professions with a weeklong strike. They understood that they must push back on the corporate and media driven educational reforms because those ideological reforms destroy much and build nothing. In Chicago they realized that they were fighting for the soul of our profession, not just in their city, but nationally. In Newark, we are also fighting for the national soul of our profession, but we don’t have to strike. We simply need to reject this disrespectful and contemptible contract. Continued arbitration is better than selling out our communities and ourselves. Please, fellow quality, dedicated, beautiful Newark Public School Teachers, think of our professions, our District, and the future of public school education in our country and vote loudly and proudly, “No!”


Jonathan Alston

English Teacher

Newark Public Schools


Personal Note: After getting my increment back I coached 6 more NJ State Champions in debate, received three Superintendents Awards for Teaching, created a growing and successful AP Language and Composition course in my school, and helped my schools Advanced Proficient rate on the Language HSPA rise from 9 to 33 percent. I have also run workshops on debate and writing in the District and would be happy to run workshops for your school as my schedule permits.