As it stands, there's not much of a career ladder for teachers in New Jersey, if they want to keep teaching.
It comes down to two choices: Stay in the classroom and get the predictable salary bumps for years of experience and keep doing the same job. Or become an administrator and leave the classroom. Other than that, there's little to no chance for added responsibility or rewards.
But some in New Jersey are starting to rethink that situation, led by the state teachers' union and a growing cadre of legislators in the Statehouse.
A bill (A-3989) easily passed the Assembly this week with bipartisan support that would set in motion a process for creating a new class of faculty called "teacher leaders." The new designation is largely based on added training in education leadership, professional development, and other skills.
Under the bill, these teachers would not have supervisory roles. Instead, they would serve as coordinators and facilitators for the schools - on internal committees or school projects or in community outreach.
"One of the big problems we have is . . . really good teachers who become administrators, or leave the profession altogether because there is no place for them to go," said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D., Essex), one of the primary sponsors of the bill.
"This is for those who don't want to leave the classroom," she said, "but still want to take a leadership role in their school and community."
The New Jersey Education Association, the teachers' union, has championed the bill, saying it would meet an important demand in the state.
"With all that schools and principals are facing, this is an opportunity to create a breeding ground of teachers who maybe don't want to become administrators, but have the skills and training to lead," said Rosemary Knab, a research director for the NJEA.
"Whenever we have done focus groups of young teachers, they have consistently said this is something they would try and use to do more for their schools."
The bill does not call for additional pay, but would allow it to be negotiated through collective bargaining.
The idea is not new; up to a dozen states and large cities have established such distinctions - with extra pay - for superlative teachers. Some call them "master teachers," others have the title of "distinguished teachers." All these efforts try to provide an extra incentive for teachers who want to keep teaching.
Newark is as close to the concept as it gets among district schools in the state. The new contract there can award up to $12,500 in performance bonuses to teachers who prove outstanding under the new teacher-evaluation system.
"It is definitely a concept that is out there, and there have been a lot of different versions put in place, some by statute, others by collective bargaining," said Daniel Weisberg, executive vice president of the New Teacher Project in New York City.
"But it is not a wholly scientific term, so the details of how it is decided are important."
Many of the details of the new bill are still to be worked out. The first step is creating an advisory board that would help determine the specific requirements for additional training and course time. The bill lays out only that the "master" designation requires 12 graduate credits - about a third of the way to a master's degree.
It may take a while, though. Colleges that want to provide the certification program would have to apply to the state to be approved. The bill calls for the advisory committee to outline the requirements within five years.
The bill has already gone through significant changes. One amendment removed a provision that would have linked the certification to specific positions, such as mentoring or school-improvement panels.
Weisberg and others have raised a question about whether basing the step-up solely on training and coursework is the right move. He said states and cities had shown more success when teachers' accomplishments in the classroom were factored in.
Weisberg said New Jersey's new teacher-evaluation system, which establishes four rankings - from ineffective to highly effective - would be a valid measure. The bill makes no mention of the evaluation system.
"What's different now is you have a reliable system that is not just based on the whim of a principal," Weisberg said, "but on the basis of who is doing a great job."
But Knab, of the NJEA, said the bill was meant not only to reward the very highest-rated teachers, but also to provide an opportunity for those who have been effective in their jobs to gain new leadership skills and use them to help their schools.
"What we have seen others do is use this more as a merit-pay plan," she said, "but we want to remove the barriers and open the door for anyone to pursue this possibility."