Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Quality-Blind Lay-Offs

Sometime this afternoon, NJEA promises, it will unveil its blueprint for reforming our outdated tenure laws and using student growth as a measure of teacher effectiveness. Smartly, the union is launching a preemptive strike before the Governor’s Committee on Teacher Evaluation unveils its own blueprint, sans NJEA representation (though with UFT representation, which is sort of the same thing but not really). It’s like the nerdy clique in high school pulling a fast one on the giggly lunchroom table of popular girls. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Anyway, there are no leaks that we’re aware of, except for the obvious: NJEA’s proposal will be informed by its convictions that tenure is merely due process and that linking student growth to teacher evaluations is specious and unfair.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that view. NJEA is doing its job, and doing it with political savvy in spite of (or because of) Christie’s relentless snub-fest. Teacher unions exist to protect jobs and increase member income. Bully for NJEA.

Here’s the difference: there’s a growing awareness that we pay an educational price because of the nature of an industry that puts the needs of the professionals above the needs of its clients.

There are other models for professional-client relations. Doctors are rated all the time on, say, their success rate in performing heart bypasses or treating cancer or managing infertility. There’s allowances made for sicker patients, maybe, or facilities that lack state-of-the-art technology. But the information is made available, and a substandard doctor loses his or her job in spite of protections afforded through due process. No one would suggest that a doctor who works for three years is immune to accountability measures, or that doctors are interchangeable, or even that an longer-serving doctor deserves job protection at the expense of a more effective doctor who has been on the job for fewer years.

Sure, teachers aren’t doctors (though it would be hard to argue that health care is less important than education). Teachers make a lot less money and historically job protection, generous benefit packages, and lots of time off have been compensatory mechanisms for low pay. On the other hand, maybe if we treated teachers like doctors they’d make more money and reap more respect. As an added bonus, maybe our education schools would draw more students at the top of their class (right now only 23% do) and we'd get our thick skulls around the fact that paying teachers more for attaining masters degrees is a waste of their time and our money, except for math and science instructors. (For more on this see Fordham's "Cracks in the Ivory Tower.")

Out on the other coast, the LA Times’ article on the effects of quality-blind teacher lay-offs is careening through cyberspace. In Los Angeles, like in New Jersey, reductions in school staff are based not on job performance and student growth but on length of time served. The article depicts the travails of a public school with an impoverished population, John H. Liechty Middle School, notable for its dismal student achievement. In 2007 the school reopened with a young, energized faculty. (Older and tenured teachers were all offered jobs there but turned them down; thus the new cohort.) Anyway, test scores soared, kids and parents were enthused, and teachers waxed eloquent over the academic progress in their classes. But in the summer of 2009, California’s budget got slammed. You got it: massive lay-offs. At Liechty, half the faculty was laid off on the basis of seniority, its best teachers were given the boot, and since then the school has regressed to its original failing state.

From the LA Times:
Because seniority is largely unrelated to performance, the district has laid off hundreds of its most promising math and English teachers. About 190 ranked in the top fifth in raising scores and more than 400 ranked in the top 40%.

Schools in some of the city's poorest areas were disproportionately hurt by the layoffs. Nearly one in 10 teachers in South Los Angeles schools was laid off, nearly twice the rate in other areas. Sixteen schools lost at least a fourth of their teachers, all but one of them in South or Central Los Angeles.

Far fewer teachers would be laid off if the district were to base the cuts on performance rather than seniority. The least experienced teachers also are the lowest-paid, so more must be laid off to meet budgetary targets. An estimated 25% more teachers would have kept their jobs if L.A. Unified had based its cuts on teachers' records in improving test scores.

"How can we be doing what's in the best interest of kids if we don't even consider a teacher's impact on kids when making key decisions?" asked Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington.
Let’s cut to the chase. Quality-blind lay-offs are good for grown-ups and bad for kids. They’re designed exclusively for the benefits of teachers and administrators. The case study of Liechty Middle School illustrates the effects of ignoring teacher effectiveness when issuing pink slips. New Jersey has a chance to leave this old canard behind. Can we do it? Stay tuned.

Update: Here's NJEA's proposal.

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