Seniority-based Teacher Layoffs

Thanks T for this article, “UW study questions seniority-based teacher layoffs“.

Should school districts facing serious budget shortfalls lay teachers off based on relative seniority? Tough one.

Rather than riff on the costs and benefits of seniority-based teacher layoffs, I want to highlight two underlying issues that education policy makers are ignoring.

First, what does it say about the state of teacher professional development and the profession more generally that many of the youngest teachers are the most effective? Learning to teach well is a challenging and complex process, the same is true I suspect for learning to be an excellent pastor, lawyer, accountant, or legislator. When we choose a surgeon for a complicated procedure we want to know how many times she’s performed it.

At what age do teachers do their best work? I suspect it’s about four to five years in which often means late twenties. This is an indictment on the poor quality of most teacher professional development and the profession. For most teachers there tends to be a dramatic, challenging, and rewarding learning curve over the first four to five years; followed by a plateauing; and then sometimes, a fatigue-based tailing off.

National Board Teacher Certification was intended to address this problem by rewarding the very best teachers with added responsibilities and challenges like mentoring new teachers, teaching methods in local schools of education, and creating exemplary curriculum for others. It’s been partially successful at best. School districts are incredibly conservative and consequently loathe to rewrite National Board teachers’ contracts.

Second, and this may surprise, but with a few important caveats, I’m more open than union leaders to efforts to compare and contrast teachers’ relative effectiveness. A recent front-page article in the New York Times about the Gates Foundation’s efforts to evaluate teachers influenced my thinking. I liked that the system doesn’t rest exclusively on students’ standardized test scores, but on video-tapes, student surveys of their teachers’ class environments, and other variables. Also important, it doesn’t appear to pit teachers against one another. Not perfect, but much better than traditional merit-based teacher evaluation pay plans.

But what Gates and other policy makers aren’t thinking nearly enough about is whether or not their video-tape/value-added-based teacher evaluation proposal is going to convince more outstanding undergraduates to commit to K-12 teaching careers.

Historically, teachers have understood the profession’s primary trade-off—less money, more job security; however, the story of the recent past is one of steadily increasing teacher accountability and decreasing job security. Meanwhile, compensation remains unchanged. Granted these are tough economic times. Numerous states have to make serious budget cuts. Still the fact remains, few of the best undergrads even consider teaching as a career. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t expect the Gates Foundation’s current work to change that.

Especially strong undergrads who are considering teaching are less concerned about rigorous teacher evaluation systems than they are their modest salaries. And that’s the problem, the Gates Foundation offers no ideas on how to improve all teachers’ compensation.

10 thoughts on “Seniority-based Teacher Layoffs

  1. I think many young teachers are effective because they come in open to the possibilities. Unfortunately, the outdated public school structure and often horrendous leadership combine over the years to dampen that openness. I personally think I am most effective now–approaching 50 after more 23 years of teaching, but that’s also because I don’t really care anymore if I piss off admin, and I don’t follow rules very well. Good article.

    • Thanks again. You’re stealing my thunder from Wednesday’s post titled “The Causes of Burnout”. I think most excellent teachers share your attitude. In contrast, most of the pre-service teachers I work with are amazingly passive/submissive. If they don’t do exactly what the ed bureaucrats and their administrators expect, they’re afraid they’ll get fired even though there’s little evidence of that.

  2. I believe Arne Duncan is initiating a national teacher campaign to recruit top college graduates and raise the status of teachers. In a NYT article by Friedman, he said, “We have to systematically create the environment and the incentives where people want to come into the profession. Three countries that outperform us — Singapore, South Korea, and Finland — don’t let anyone teach who doesn’t come from the top third of their graduating class.” How successful this campaign is I’m not sure, but the thinking is out there to change the perception of the profession.

    • I’m skeptical he has specific ideas on how to improve the “environment” and fund the necessary incentives. We have to hold his and the admin’s feet to the fire by demanding specifics and insisting that they quit trying to implement top-down reforms.

  3. As someone who is actually surprised to be considered a veteran teacher (I am still very much exited about the job) I think two things would help: 1) extend the school year by 3-5 weeks and increase teacher pay by 20%, and 2) provide for well funded sabbaticals for creative reflection, thought and growth.

    • Great ideas, but how are you going to convince your Holiday Hills neighbors to pay considerably more in property taxes? Especially when their home values have fallen, their state jobs are suddenly less secure, and they say, “My kids are grown and gone, why should I care?”

  4. That is a problem. I do think that we Americans need to pay more taxes to ensure community cohesiveness. My dad, who worked for General Motors for 30 years, thinks that we should tax gas to keep it at a constant 5 dollars a gallon.

  5. It is really difficult to motivate dedicated individuals to a profession that requires as much skill and training as an MD or an MBA, yet has little social status nor payment for the service performed. It is amazing that we have a “Teach for America” but no “Law for America” or “Doctor for America” with the assumption that anyone can teach. Also, the best academic students may not have the emotional intelligence to succeed in a classroom.

  6. I am a recent National Board Certified Teacher. I work at a school on the Washington Coast that has been designated as a challenging school by the State of Washington, due to it’s high free and reduced lunch ratio. During the late 1980’s my school was managed by a lead teacher, and the administrative duties were distributed among the teaching staff. With the advent of NCLB, the amount of teacher leadership has significantly declined. Currently, we are in the most top-down administration I’ve seen in my 16 years of teaching.

    Teacher leaders must be given the opportunity to have a significant say about curriculum development, school year calendar, and other important considerations. In comparison with the Nursing profession, I think teachers are far too passive in general to let their voices be heard. With all of the changes in educational reform, teachers are not in the top echelons of decision making. In fact, their voices rarely are heard. I am encouraged by WEA’s involvement in identifying what constitutes best practices. In conjunction with National Board Certification, teachers need to clarify for the country what is possible. We can’t afford to close our doors and teach any longer.

    If I was measured by my effectiveness, I’d be commended for last year’s reading test results. In 3rd grade, every student in my class passed the state test. However, our school practices Walk to Read, which means that if my pay was tied to my student achievement, my colleague, also a NBCT, should have commendations as well. Her class had more social and emotional issues, and hence, her home room test scores were slightly lower. Children are complex. Tying teacher wages to test score results is an exercise in futility, because the same teacher’s test score results can vary from year to year as much as 30%. This is especially true in working class and poverty stricken neighborhoods, where some children enter Kindergarten not knowing their ABC’s of being able to count to 10.

    I am still proud of my school. It is small, but considering the social problems associated with poverty, I think we are managing quite well. 30% of our teachers are National Board Certified. We teach with passion and effectiveness, even though most of us are over the age of 50. The ability to teach, in my opinion, is enhanced by age, experience and wisdom, as long as the passion remains.

    Building relationships in a rural area takes time. A teacher’s reputation is built both inside and outside the schoolhouse. The better the teacher, the more effective the relationships. The better the relationships, the better the students learn. Teaching is changing, but character qualities such as respect for diversity, passion for excellence, and good communication skills never grow old.

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