A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Of Layoffs, Seniority, and Bad Teachers: An Educational Bermuda Triangle

News junkie that I am, I was reading Newsweek (a shadow of its former self, but that's a gripe for another day because I have to have my fix) and ran across this article. Please note the paragraphs that I have placed in boldface. There may be a quiz later. (Oooh, I AM getting back into the swing of things! Maybe I should go lay down till this passes..... nahhh.)
Education reformers were feeling optimistic. With President Obama’s Race to the Top competition, which offers financial rewards to states willing to hold teachers accountable for their students’ performance, they’ve made real progress in weeding out poor teachers.

But now the reformers have spotted a dark cloud on the horizon. State budgets, particularly in badly managed big states like California, New York, and New Jersey, are out of control. Although Congress managed to avoid massive teacher layoffs last year with federal aid, the stimulus money is running out, and congressmen do not appear to be in the mood for more deficit spending. That means teacher layoffs are coming—perhaps more than 100,000 nationwide. In most states, union contracts or state law requires they be done by seniority, so the newest teachers are pink-slipped, no matter how good they are. “ ‘Last in, first out’ virtually guarantees that all our great, young teachers will be out of a job, and some of the least effective will stay in the classroom,” says Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago.

Such layoffs disproportionately hurt students attending the lowest-performing schools, because they tend to have the highest proportion of new teachers. In some Los Angeles schools last year, such cuts wiped out 50 to 70 percent of the faculty.

One surprising solution may come from Knowles’s home city of Chicago. The state of Illinois is one of the worst-run in the country, rivaling even California for its unwillingness to take the steps necessary to stanch the flow of red ink. As a result, Chicago is facing pressure to cut 900 teacher jobs. Under the usual union contract, the last hired were to be the first fired, competent or not.

But the Chicago School Board, handpicked by the Windy City’s tough-minded Mayor Richard M. Daley, has interpreted a new state law as giving it the power to fire the city’s 200 most incompetent teachers first.

While this might seem like common sense, it’s heresy to Karen Lewis, the newly elected head of the Chicago teachers’ union, who is considering going to court to fight the attack on seniority. “I admit, this is a great PR tool. Why not lay off the bad teachers first?” she conceded in an interview with NEWSWEEK. But on closer inspection, she says, there is no way of doing it fairly. In Chicago’s troubled urban school district, 99 percent of the 23,000 or so teachers are rated “excellent” or “superior,” while less than 0.1 percent are rated “unsatisfactory.” Employing some creative logic, Lewis asks: “Why are the worst evaluations believable, but the best are not?”

Reformers scoff at the union boss’s arguments. “While principals may not be consistently evaluating their teachers to the extent that they should, they certainly know who the worst teachers are in their buildings and have been using all sorts of tricks of the trade over the years to get these teachers to move to other schools,” says Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a reform advocacy group.

Largely because of the carrots dangled by Race to the Top, a growing number of states, including Colorado, Tennessee, Delaware, and Oklahoma, have changed their laws to make teacher performance a factor in tenure and firing decisions, but very few can use it to make layoff decisions. The District of Columbia’s public-school system is one place that can. Arizona has gone the furthest, making it illegal to consider seniority in layoff, tenure, and even rehiring decisions. But defying the unions is hard going. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had to back away from layoffs based on performance and shoot for an across-the-board pay freeze.

Analysts say that states’ money troubles will continue to shrink budgets over the next year, and school districts that have already cut to the bone will have to find new ways to make less go further. Weeding out the weakest teachers and keeping the most effective “is the only policy that makes sense for districts to implement in tough times,” says Walsh. After all, when student needs bump up against adult needs, is there any question whose should come first?

Okay, now let's attack this logically. I will deal with boldfaced item number two first-- I will circle back to the boldfaced part of paragraph 1 later.

So, "all our great young teachers will be out of a job...." Now, use of the word "all" usually sends up red flags for me in statements like this. But then again, I want to point out that not all of any age cohort is either "great" or incompetent, so there will also be some rotten young teachers who will be out of a job when using seniority as a basis. And there are some great young teachers, and some rotten young teachers. Just being a young teacher doesn't guarantee that you are "great." I am and will continue to be troubled (and enraged) by the assumption that those of us who have been in the classroom (mumble) years are either lazy lovers of the sinecure of tenure or at the very least losers who may have some skills but if we were really talented we would have demonstrated the gumption to get out of the classroom ghetto and out into the really important arena of administration of policy-wonkiness. Running throughout the criticism of public school teachers is a strong dismissal of experience in the classroom. This criticism runs from the greenest 23-year-old assistant principal (we had one who had spent a grand total of six months in an actual classroom before making the jump into hyperspace faster than you can say "Chewie, get us out of here!" He didn't last long as an AP either-- he's now teaching in a school of education somewhere. Ah, irony!) to people like Michelle Rhee (3 yrs in TFA before she got the heck out of Dodge) and Arne Duncan (0 years teaching experience but several years of playing basketball with President Obama which has stood him in good stead). Since many of these people felt little to no desire to really attempt to BE the lion tamer, they denigrate anyone who has the willingness to do so. No, they just want to stand outside the ring and claim that since they've been to a lot of circuses, they KNOW how to be a lion tamer-- it's just that they've got more important things to do. There must be something wrong with anyone who is sucker enough to be an experienced teacher, and it must be that incompetence and having nowhere else to go must explain this refusal to move up and beyond. Supposedly, school reformers want great teachers, but those great teachers shouldn't stay for more than three years, or there must be something wrong with them.

Second, I am deeply troubled by the fact that only .1% of Chicago teachers are rated as "unsatisfactory." Something smells here. Now here is where the next item comes in. So let's look at the most troubling quote of all, which bears repeating:

"While principals may not be consistently evaluating their teachers to the extent that they should, they certainly know who the worst teachers are in their buildings and have been using all sorts of tricks of the trade over the years to get these teachers to move to other schools."

Here is where the outrage starts for me. Let me be very clear: I DO NOT WANT INCOMPETENT TEACHERS IN MY PROFESSION. And I have taught next to some real doozies. But my next bit of outrage has always been this: how did they get there to begin with? In this discussion, there is some definite incompetence being overlooked, all right. We have incompetent teachers in the classroom because we have incompetent administrators who refuse to get up and enforce very clear policies. And this has gone on for years.

Let's break it down. Although "tenure" means very little in a "right to work" state such as those I have lived in all my life, there is nonetheless a process for evaluating teachers. In my district, a new teacher is supposed to be evaluated twice a year until their "probationary" status ends after five years. That's ten evaluations at a minimum. And if there are signs of trouble, there can be more. There should be more. And if administrators are doing their jobs, AND if they truly know what good teaching is (another big if given the paucity of teaching experience of the administrators themselves), then tenure should never be an issue. But there's not. Why is Ms. Walsh so dismissive of the incompetence demonstrated at this crucial step of the process by administrators? It seems that, when it comes right down to it, it's not necessarily incompetent teachers many reformers are after: it is simply the bugaboo of tenure on the way to privatizing public schools. The term "incompetent teachers" as a propaganda tool serves an important function for those who want to privatize public education, in the same way that the hot-button term of "abortion" serves an important function for Republican policy-makers. Both are far too valuable to ever really be gotten rid of, because these phrases shut off thinking and cause many people to react viscerally, often against their overall interests.

This is all too often the way. Some examples: Conservatives (in both parties) claim to hate illegal immigration, but the businessmen who write the checks for their political campaigns love that cheap labor and its depressing effect on wages across the board for American workers. So they rail against illegal immigration on the one hand, but then frantically fight the enforcement of laws already on the books which make it illegal to hire illegal immigrants. Take away the economic incentive if you really want to end "illegal" immigration.

Or this: States pass involuntary confinement laws for the most dangerous sexual predators, which are not only probably a violation of civil liberties, but (do not think I have ANYTHING but loathing for sexual predators) ALSO COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY. If we sentenced sexual predators with the severity their crimes deserve, they would never serve the ends of their sentences, and we would never have to resort to locking them up AFTER their sentences are served.

Okay, now, those were some very emotionally powerful examples, and we could talk about those all day. But we are here to talk about firing incompetent teachers. If we just shrug our shoulders at the refusal by administrators to do their duty and truly evaluate teachers, WHY should we give those same people the right to fire any teacher at any time at will? Do we really think that such a sweeping power should be entrusted to people who can't be bothered to come out of their offices and perform one of their primary functions? In fact, isn't that a far more dangerous idea than simply abolishing "tenure?"

As discussed before, "Race to the Top" often requires the use of a flamethrower where a surgical strike would be more apropos. There are a few school districts in my general vicinity who have finally been taken over by the state due to their utter failure to provide educational opportunity for their students. But rather than firing incompetent administrators and teachers, what usually happens is that all of the teachers-- all of them-- are fired, regardless of tenure, and the administrators are retained. The most that may happen is that they are shuffled around to another position in that same failing district. A teacher's real competence does not matter. There must be someone to blame when a school district fails-- and it so much easier- yes, easier!- to fire all of the teachers rather than to realize that just as there are often bad teachers even in good schools, there are also great teachers even in bad schools. But "Race to the Top" does not provide for any such subtlety in thinking, and often, as we see, it is already just accepted that teachers' good evaluations should be dismissed as untrustworthy. You may think, "Well, the good teachers will always find a job." In the most recent case in my area, however, teachers were left in limbo until THIS WEEK to find out that they had been summarily fired, and by now, there are no openings for the coming school year-- except at the schools in which these teachers already taught, of course. And we've already pointed out that the assumption is, if you teach in a poorly performing school, you must be an incompetent teacher. (And they wonder why the most highly qualified teachers often aren't willing to teach in the most high-risk schools? Really? Think, people!)

Finally, "Race to the Top" will not result in having better teachers in the most broken schools. If teachers are going to be held accountable for their students' test scores without any other consideration (such as poverty levels, community support of schools, student willingness to learn or, yes, even tenure) then why would any sane teacher take the risk of going to a school where test scores are going to be abysmal for all of those other reasons listed above? Especially if I wish to teach for my career rather than be an administrator or a policy-wonk? If Michelle Rhee really single-handedly raised her students' test scores so much during her three years in TFA, why didn't she see how heroic it would have been for her to remain in the classroom year after year and perform a true miracle for the thousands of students she should have encountered during a log a fruitful career? She could single-handedly have ENSURED that thousands of children could have been raised out of ignorance and poverty! It would have been a SURE THING. Right?

I will close with a true story. I have actually witnessed the firing of an incompetent teacher on a (very) few occasions in my career. But except in one single case, a part of the deal was that the administrators would provide a neutral recommendation in place of the honest evaluation that should have gone into this person's file. That simply passed the buck on and allowed that person to continue to seek employment in the field of education-- usually in some high-poverty, urban school district that is looking for ANY warm body to fill a slot at some of the most at-risk schools. Which brings us back to the problem of school districts like Chicago. Somewhere, this circle has got to be broken. Shouldn't student needs trump those of adults? Incompetence at both the teacher and administrator level serves the purpose of no one.

Or does it?

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At 7/29/10, 5:58 PM, Anonymous ExurbanMom said...

I'm working on a school levy campaign in my community, and I get so sick of people saying "we need to get rid of the bad teachers." Okay, where are these supposedly horrible teachers? I haven't seen any of them! We get all sorts of great results (grad rates, test scores, etc...). I think that there's a persistent meme like what you mentioned above--I've seen lion taming, I could do that. People believe that since they went to school themselves, they could also teach--it's easy. Well, I've been going to the doctor most of my life, but I couldn't step into an MD's shoes... I do feel that unions don't do a very good job of communicating with the public and building bridges. They are always treating the public and the school board as enemies rather than allies. It's okay that union negotiations are an adversarial process, but we had a local union rep say "Fxxx the community" at a public meeting. If that's your starting point, you're not going to get very far. Unions need to do a better job educating the public about the high level of skill most teachers have, the extensive training and inservices, the ability to reach children at ALL levels, etc. Some PR might pay off.

At 7/29/10, 9:04 PM, Anonymous Lea said...

Great post! One of my biggest pet peeves lately is the denigration of tenure. People act as if there's a Tenure Fairy who goes around granting tenure with a pretty pink wand. If the administrator is doing his/her job, bad teachers don't last long enough to earn tenure.

Lea (longtime reader, just usually too lazy to click on the post in my reader to come and make a comment)

At 7/30/10, 10:28 AM, Anonymous Annikki said...

If the young, new teachers are all oh-so-awesome, and the failing schools have mostly young, new teachers that would be kicked out in seniority-based lay-offs..... why are the failing schools failing? Shouldn't those schools be doing GREAT with all those incredible new teachers?? ;)

At 7/30/10, 12:47 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

EM: Really? "F--- the community?" Although no prude, I am a Christian, and THAT would enrage me on a number of levels, but particularly to have someone who represents me behave in such an unprofessional manner.


Annikki: Hilariously true. Great point!


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