Invest More And Demand More

Have any other groups besides the Ed Trust taken the commonsense position that if states want more money to avert teacher layoffs they ought to have to do sensible things like end purely seniority based (last hired first let go) layoff policies in exchange for getting it?  The Trust deserves credit for stepping out on this one, who is with them?

6 Replies to “Invest More And Demand More”

  1. I have taken a position based on teacher effectiveness metrics. The teachers are to be measured from tallest to shortest and terminations are based on that since it makes as much sense as any of the accountability metrics.

  2. I’m not. It’s a union. Go sign the book, rookie. What goes around comes around.

  3. The folks at Education Trust are absolutely correct: “last-hired, first-fired” systems make no sense. But they never have. So of course they should be dismantled; one need not be an eduwonk to tease out this riddle. But dumping the traditional approach won’t change much on its own. The far more complicated and practical issue is what to replace it with.

    It’s fashionable nowadays to suggest that new and better teacher evaluation systems will lead the way to separating wheat from chaff. But such systems require entirely new infrastructures (a la DC and Houston) and, so far at least, we haven’t seen a jot of data showing that these systems work particularly well in predicting differences in teacher quality when gaps are very small. This is the critical distinction in the “last-hired, first-fired” situation.

    We’re not talking about figuring out the difference between the Teacher of the Year and a burnt out slacker. We’re talking about finely-grained distinctions between the worst 300 hundred teachers in a district and the next worst 300 teachers. We have no instruments that have this degree of granular accuracy, and I suspect that in teaching we never will.

    When we do away with “last-hired, first-fired” we’re saying that there will be another way to determine who gets fired, and that this new way will be able to discriminate effectively among those at the bottom of the talent pool. Every such decision comes down to choices between groups of people whose track records and abilities don’t differ very much. For example, let’s say a district with a performance-based employment system wants to fire 500 teachers out 10,000. We know from numerous studies—those of Sanders and Rogers, in particular—that there isn’t very much that separates our worst teachers from each other. While there’s a huge difference between top and bottom quintile teachers, there appears to be very little difference within the bottom quintile, especially when we split that group into several subgroups to see who stays and who goes.

    It’s always an unconscionable tragedy to see a young rising star riffed when we know there are far less effective teachers up the line whose jobs are spared. But does anyone know what the stats are on this occurrence? Probably not. For example, out of several hundred young teachers fired, what percentage are significantly better than more senior teachers who are retained? As someone who has trained about 10,000 teachers, my gut tells me that in large scale “last-hired, first-fired” situations, 5%-10% of the decisions are of this tragic nature. That’s too many, to be sure, but it’s unclear that simply removing the traditional selection scheme would recover all of those errors and prevent new types of errors from being made.

    So the best we can hope for in banishing the traditional hire-and-fire approach is that some percentage of new teachers (many of whom are often the worst in a district anyway) would be spared in favor of letting some comparatively poorer teachers go who had more seniority. While this would certainly be better than what we have currently, it is unlikely, even over many years, to have a dramatic effect on aggregate teaching quality within a district.

    The solution is, therefore, is not to “do away with the seniority-based system”, it’s to “do away with the seniority-based system and…”. But this is the part we never want to talk about in a serious and responsible way. It’s easy to be against silly things that almost everyone hates. It’s much harder, but more necessary, to be in favor of bold and thoughtful ideas no one has even considered.

    If a large school district wants to make large gains in teaching quality, it will have to fire bad teachers, recruit better teachers to replace them, train up mid-performing teachers, and retain the best teachers. The reason “last-fired, first-fired” can sustain itself these days in light of almost universal condemnation—and only half-hearted union support—is because no one wants to work across the full scope of teacher quality. Until someone doe—and I really don’t think any state has the stones because it would require better funding and a complete overhaul of pre-service training and certification among many other things—traditional seniority-based systems will live on for years even if smart organizations like Education Trust, and all the other solid reform groups out there, argue persuasively that the old system must be destroyed. Destruction is all well and good, but as Schumpeter taught us, it’s creative destruction that really gets the job done.

    What our country seems to miss in the battle to reform education is that doing away with bad things is only half the solution—and it’s not even really half because replacing broken traditions like the way we lay teachers off is nowhere near as complex or as important as putting the right human capital model in its place. “No!” is not a reform agenda. “No! And…” is the only way to make progress, and I would expect savvy groups like Education Trust to be leading the charge on the “And…”.

  4. I agree that doing away with bad things is only a piece of the puzzle. What replaces that bad thing? Just watched a charter school do away with last hired first fired–not to keep a rising star (although he is a competently developing second year teacher) but because he was good enough and cost less. The one let go (more veteran and more effective in terms of student achievement) simply cost more. Is this the only place in the US this happened? Using teacher effectiveness as the deciding factor can be dangerous too–effective in terms of what? The budget?

  5. By using money to avert layoffs for teachers, the administration is sending the message that teachers are critically important people who need to be treated in a way that will attract qualified women AND men to the profession. Is there anything more important than this?

  6. Linda,

    With all due respect and humility, “by using money to avert layoffs” the administration is wasting money. Visit this week’s Education Experts Blog on the National Journal for a thorough discussion:

    Also, think about the stats: Harkin’s $23 billion only buys us one year of about 175,000 jobs. That would only raise class size by less than 5%. Research shows that changes this small have no effect on student achievement.

    Finally, since we still the use the antiquated “first hired, first fired” approach, most teachers fired will be first- and second-year teachers: statistically our worst teachers.

    So, nothing is gained with Harink’s bill. And $23 billion is lost. Also, economic data shows that state coffers won’t recover for years. So even if the Harkin bill goes through, another bill will be needed next year, and the year after that, etc.

    All we will accomplish by spending hundreds of billions of dollars is securing the employment of our least effective teachers in a circumstance that provides no improvement in student learning.

    And why are teachers’ job more important than, say, the jobs of emergency service workers? In my county, EMS folks are so short-staffed that average response time has skyrocketed to 20 minutes. That’s life and death if you’re talking about a heart attack or a stroke. Why aren’t we trying to save the jobs of emergency service workers? police? firemen? or doctors in rural areas? At least we have data that shows that small changes in these types of employment can have big changes in results. In our county, adding one more ambulance and one more EMS “team” would reduce response time by a third. With two ambulances and two teams, we’d be back down to the 4-8 minute response times we used to have. In this case, there is a small price to pay for saving lives. In the Harnkin bill there’s a big price to pay for preserving jobs that provide little or no benefit to their communities. You can’t even argue the unemployment factor because teachers are so poorly paid. Most first- and second-year teachers can make more money — and thus pay more taxes and do more spending — if they have other jobs.

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