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.