Teachers, Layoffs, and “Doing Something”

/ 10 April 2012 / jennifer

Michael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020, April 10, 2012 –

H.F. 1870, the bill to replace seniority with an unfinished teacher evaluation system, is wrapping up its time in conference committee on its way to likely passage from both houses of the Minnesota legislature. From there it goes to Governor Dayton’s desk for signature or veto. The nominal purpose of this bill is to fix the problems connected to seniority-guided decision making. The real purpose is political, an attempt to pit progressives against teachers.

The natural progressive impulse when confronted with a social problem is to try to do_something_. This gets us in trouble sometimes, and never more so than when conservatives use it to make us fight among ourselves. Examples of this can be drawn from all over the education reform landscape. Each time, conservatives have duped progressives into believing that “doing something” means “doing this conservative-inspired idea”.

I’ve had enough of that. Today we’ll look at some of the real problems connected to seniority and some other solutions. The solutions I pose aren’t the only ones out there, but the point is that we should be talking about more than just the one “solution” coming from the conservative agenda.

Problem: Some older teachers are ineffective.

This gets back to one of conservatives’ favorite boogeymen: The Bad Teacher. The Bad Teacher is the bane of education, a compensation-sucking, education-neglecting “lifer” sitting back with feet on the desk waiting to collect a pension. If you listen to conservatives and allied reformers, Bad Teachers have infested most of our lowest-performing schools and are the chief reason for the achievement gap and overall low performance.

H.F. 1870, presumably, is meant to expose these Bad Teachers and get them fired when budget layoffs come around. This neglects to engage with the actual processes districts already have in place to remove teachers for performance reasons. Those who feel that these processes are too slow or too complicated should focus on trying to improve them rather than running an end-around through layoffs necessitated by budget. We could talk about re-evaluating teacher’s tenure status every three or five years so that persistent low-performers can be put back onto probationary status and removed if they don’t improve. Instead, we’re talking about what conservatives want us to talk about.

Problem: Seniority-guided layoffs sometimes layoff younger teachers who are more effective than more senior colleagues.

Especially in large districts with massive teacher populations, this can result in unfairness when a promising up-and-comer is let go ahead of a more experienced teacher who plateaued at a level of questionable performance. The options on the table for tackling this have gone largely undiscussed. Some of these possibilities include giving principals a certain number of “franchise picks,” allowing them to protect a certain proportion of teachers from seniority-based layoff decisions. Alternatively, we could look into tiered professional structures that allow exceptional teachers to qualify for increased protection based on multifaceted, teacher- and administrator-informed promotion processes.

Instead we’re talking about a teacher evaluation system that places significant weight on test scores. Other areas that have experimented with such systems saw Teachers of the Year laid off while teachers who got luckier at Test Score Roulette stayed on. We have no reason to expect that this evaluation system will be any better, and in may in fact be worse than using seniority, seeing as how most teachers do in fact get better the more years they spend in the classroom.

**Problem: Seniority-guided layoffs disproportionately hurt low-income schools with less experienced teacher populations.


In districts with many schools (like Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Anoka-Hennepin), some of the worst-off schools have the highest concentrations of low-experience teachers. As a result, they suffer from higher teacher turnover which is destabilizing for students. In response, we could explore pupil-proportionate layoffs, where each school lays off a certain percentage of teachers equivalent to the rest of the district. There may be other choices out there, too, but we’re not talking about them.

**Problem: After seniority-guided layoffs, some teachers are transferred to schools they don’t want to be at or that don’t want them.


The result of the problem above is senior teachers being reassigned to replace the less effective teachers who were laid off elsewhere. Most senior teachers make it work, but a few end up forcibly moved to schools where they don’t want to teach or that don’t want them. We could be discussing giving principals the final say on whether to hire a teacher or soliciting other ideas. That’s not what we’re doing, though.

What we’re doing is dancing to conservatives’ tune. What I’ve tossed out here are not the only possible solutions, but they are some possible solutions. Progressives and reformers should not rush to embrace the first ALEC-inspired idea that claims to fix a problem. Whatever “something” we do, let’s make sure it’s the right thing, too.