One of the biggest disappointments of the 2011 legislative session - to date - is the missed opportunity to change the way school districts dismiss teachers when budget cuts force layoffs.
Today’s seniority-based system is broken. When poor-performing, ineffective teachers are allowed to stay in the classroom based solely on seniority, and new, energetic, highly effective teachers are dismissed for lack of tenure, something is drastically wrong.
Yet that’s the system we’re saddled with today.
The public recognizes this flaw. In a January poll, 81 percent of those surveyed said that the Legislature should require districts to base teacher layoffs on performance rather than seniority.
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That’s a significant majority of voters, but lawmakers were unmoved. Two bills were introduced to switch from seniority-based layoffs to performance-based reductions in force. Neither made it out of committee before the lawmakers’ self-imposed deadline for advancing legislation.
Senate Bill 5399, introduced by Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, didn’t even get a hearing in the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.
House Bill 1609, introduced by Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, got a hearing in the House Committee on Education, but was never brought to a committee vote.
Blame it on the lobbying clout of the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. Leaders of the union continue to fight for today’s seniority system, regardless of the harm it does to students in the classroom.
Last December the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington released a study of Washington state teachers. The study concluded that deciding layoffs based solely on which teachers have the least seniority has a significant impact on students’ ability to learn.
The researchers looked at the relationships between education policies and student outcomes, and at the 1,717 Washington state teachers who were given layoff notices in either of the past two school years.
Most of those teachers were given notices because they had the least seniority; nearly all of them ultimately kept their jobs, but many face layoffs this year as federal stimulus money used to retain them dries up and the state faces a $4.6 billion budget shortfall.
Researchers compared the actual layoff-notice list with a list of teachers who would have been laid off using a measurement of effectiveness known as “value-added,” in which teachers are judged by the improvement of their students on standardized tests.
Dan Goldhaber, lead author of the study and the center’s director, projected that student achievement after seniority-based layoffs would drop by an estimated 2.5 to 3.5 months of learning per student, when compared with laying off the least effective teachers.
“If your bottom line is student achievement, then this is not the best system,” Goldhaber said.
The research found that using a strict seniority system for layoffs has a variety of other adverse consequences, including:
• School districts lay off more teachers to meet their budget goals because junior teachers are paid less.
• Some districts lay off teachers in high-demand and hard-to-fill areas such as special education.
• Seniority-based layoffs disproportionately hit schools where the most needy kids are and the least senior teachers usually work.
Common sense dictates that the least effective, underperforming teachers should be the first to go,
We know, from decades of research, that the most important factor in student learning is the quality of the teacher standing in front of the classroom. Unbelievably, teachers in this state mostly are evaluated as either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.” That’s not much to go on.
Clearly, a better teacher evaluation system is needed. It’s encouraging to know the state is proceeding with a handful of pilot projects to change the teacher performance evaluation system in this state. North Thurston is one of eight pilot districts trying out a four-tier system. A report back to the Legislature is due in June.
A solid performance evaluation system, with lots of training and principals committed to using it as a management tool to improve performance and hold teachers accountable, is absolutely essential.
We wish lawmakers – especially Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate – had the courage to stand up to union bosses and do the right thing by getting rid of the seniority-based layoff system. It’s not too late to attach that legislation to another education bill moving through the process.
With widespread teacher layoffs in the offing, Washington is about to lose some of its best and brightest young teachers, while long-term, ineffective teachers keep their jobs, simply because they have more tenure in the classroom.
That’s not right.
Switching to performance-based layoffs is the right thing for the education system in this state, and more important, the research shows it’s the right thing for student learning.