The Inertia of Bad Policies

Guest Post by Tim Daly, President, New Teacher Project

In his first foray into the blogosphere, Rick Hess argued that people on all sides of education policy debates are too quick to invoke the “it’s for the kids kids” mantra, as though it’s possible to corner the market on moral superiority. He’s right; people too often hide behind a “pro-child” cloak to avoid substantive discussions of important issues. Even worse, though, is refusing to acknowledge when current policies are demonstrably harmful to kids.

Consider the case of quality-blind teacher layoffs.  Earlier this year, as school districts across the country confronted the unpleasant prospect of teacher layoffs, we released a short paper describing how layoff rules based exclusively on seniority would make a bad situation even worse. These outdated rules force schools to cut effective teachers while retaining less effective ones. They maximize the number of layoffs necessary achieve a given budget reduction, since newer teachers earn the lowest salaries. They have a disproportionate impact on the neediest students, who are more likely to have newer teachers. And they are unpopular with teachers – even most veterans.

Now, new research from the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research confirms that quality-blind layoffs harm student performance. Let me say that again: the way we do layoffs causes kids to learn less than if we factored in teacher effectiveness. The esteemed Jane Hannaway discussed these findings in Thursday’s edition of USA Today.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that quality-blind layoff policies harm students, there’s been relatively little outcry from adults to change them. We’re told by some that any other layoff system would be subjective, opaque or discriminatory—in other words, that a quality-blind layoff system is the worst one except for all the rest (apologies to Churchill).

But why should we give up so quickly? Our paper outlined a smarter layoff system that considers several measures of effectiveness—like teacher attendance and evaluation ratings—in addition to seniority. Most districts could implement this idea with data they have on hand right now.  In Chicago, the CEO and board of Chicago Public Schools has announced that the relatively small number of unsatisfactory-rated teachers will be laid off before higher rated teachers.  In Colorado, a new law was passed with AFT support that requires layoffs to be done based on performance.

I’m not suggesting TNTP has a monopoly on good layoff policies or that Chicago or Colorado models should be adopted across the board. The point is that we all need to sit down and have the conversation. We need to commit to solving difficult problems instead of running away from them.  But the conversation must have parameters – we need a system the supports the core work of schools, not the comfort level of those who must administer the system.

The coming year will give us another opportunity to get layoff policies right, and it’s critical that we do. Given the economic climate, large districts will probably have to lay off teachers next spring, even if a new round of federal aid materializes. Between now and then, why shouldn’t we be able to find a way to minimize the impact of layoffs on students while reducing the number of layoffs necessary? Why can’t stakeholders come together in every district to create sensible, transparent layoff rules that consider both effectiveness and seniority, and that are careful to guard against any discrimination?

The inertia that buttresses bad policies isn’t limited to layoffs. Many districts still force-place teachers into schools—without regard to the preferences of anyone involved—even though brokering genuine matches can improve teacher performance. States require teachers to spend significant time and money earning master’s degrees that don’t appear to have any impact on classroom performance.  The federal government spends more than a billion dollars a year on top-down professional development that teachers generally loathe and that has shown no impact on student achievement. The list goes on.

For a field that professes to value “evidence-based” strategies, we’re awfully wedded to disproven traditions.  That doesn’t mean we should shy away from trying things that don’t have a mile-high research base – there is a place for experimentation.  But it means when the returns are in and something doesn’t work, we need to hold ourselves more accountable for admitting it and coming up with something better.

2 thoughts on “The Inertia of Bad Policies

  1. edlharris

    In his first foray into the blogosphere, Rick Hess argued that people on all sides of education policy debates are too quick to invoke the “it’s for the kids kids” mantra, as though it’s possible to corner the market on moral superiority. He’s right; people too often hide behind a “pro-child” cloak to avoid substantive discussions of important issues. Even worse, though, is refusing to acknowledge when current policies are demonstrably harmful to kids.

    Tim might want to speak to Vincent Reinoso of DCPS who gave us this in the Eduwonk post just before Tim’s:
    If it’s in the best interests of kids, do it. Education Reform in D.C.: Going Back is Not an Option
    Vincent’s boss Michelle Rhee likes to utter such sentiments.

  2. Bob Calder

    Hess makes the mistake of thinking “It’s for the kids” is a mindless mantra. But if you read carefully, the criticism is often a contemporary criticism of business. They are calling him out for not putting customers first.

    Ask him and he’ll tell you he *is* putting them first. But when you implement a change that makes your customers at the head of a line go back to the end or worse, to another store, they aren’t being served.

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