Letter From A Laid Off Teacher

Tyler Hester, last seen on this blog book-raising for his classroom, was laid off in a RIF.  Check out his take on it here.

10 Replies to “Letter From A Laid Off Teacher”

  1. I read Tyler Hester’s blog post (in which he advocating abolishing the seniority system). This was my response:

    I worked as a teacher before pursuing a career as an attorney. As a teacher, I too felt that the use of seniority as the only criteria for RIF’s was unfair. However, I am equally leery of the alternatives.

    The problem is that “effective teaching” is difficult to measure or to subjectively define. Generally speaking, the alternatives to seniority hiring/firing are to give a principal the total authority to determine who stays or who goes, or to use student test data. Principals (who rarely view the inside of any one teacher’s classroom for more than one period a semester, and probably do not have any experience teaching the teacher’s subject) are not the best judges’ of teacher competence. Principals are also likely to be swayed by personal feelings or past disagreements or differences of opinion with the teachers.

    Test data is even more unreliable: I’ve read that education researchers say that using just one year of data is too unreliable, but variability can be reduced if you look at 5 years of data — However, many teachers do not teach the same subject for five straight years at the same school.

  2. Attorney DC,

    I agree with you that there are problems with both test scores and principal decisions. We should try to address those problems, however, instead of condemning our schools to a system that we know doesn’t work.

    Current teacher evaluations are broken (see http://www.widgeteffect.org), but that doesn’t mean principals can’t figure this out. We should work hard to train and develop better observation tools / rubrics and other objective metrics, but principals should and do know who their good teachers are.

    Principals won’t be perfect, but isn’t it their job to know what effective teaching is? Shouldn’t we be more comfortable with a principal making these decisions than doing so arbitrarily? Even without content expertise, principals should still be able to tell which teachers are working hard, managing their classrooms, engaging students, etc. Isn’t this what they are paid to do? If they aren’t doing well, then we should hold them accountable and get rid of the principal.

    Test scores are not ideal either. The research does show that one-year measures aren’t perfect. The data does jump around a bit, but without a doubt there is a strong correlation with effectiveness. Using multiple years of data should help. Teachers don’t need to teach the same subject to make this work – the data is jumpy because of sample sizes, lets just increase those.

    Better still why use either of these independently? Both are flawed measures that become much better when used together. If both the principal and the data say a teacher is not getting the job done for kids – then I for one would feel pretty good about getting rid of them. Will we be perfect using these methods? No, there will be mistakes. Will we be miles and miles better than a strict seniority system? Absolutely.

    Lets not accept the status quo because we don’t have a perfect alternative. Lets move to something that we know can be better and then work to improve even more. For example, tinkering with other ideas like, including peer evaluators, parental input, etc.

    Former NYC public math teacher

  3. Mr. Hester begins with the oft-repeated “basic truth” that teacher effectiveness is the single most important factor in student achievement. While can I understand that navel-gazing young educators want to believe that to be true (I probably did when I started teaching), let’s be more accurate. Teacher effectiveness is an important — arguably the most important — SCHOOL-BASED factor in a child’s achievement. But parents play a much larger role in the child’s life and in the child’s achievement than teachers do. If teachers were the primary determinant of achievement, then it would follow that high-achieving suburban schools ipso facto must have better teachers across the board. That is not necessarily the case. Furthermore, if teachers are the thing that matters most, then what about the years before school even begins? How on earth do children learn without teachers instructing them?

    We can support improving teacher effectiveness without belittling parents and their impact. Cutting parents out is not only arrogant, it’s counterproductive.

  4. Yes, that is what I noticed too about Mr. Hester’s article. Of course, the teacher is the most important variable in the SCHOOLING of the child; the parents are the most important in a child’s EDUCATION.

  5. Dean: Thanks for your response to my comment. I do agree with you that using seniority as the sole factor in RIF’s is not an ideal situation. However, from my experience teaching in many different schools under a variety of principals, I really have reservations about allowing principals the sole authority to fire teachers in a RIF situation. I worked for principals I liked a lot and principals I clashed with (and others who were somewhere in between), but rarely was I observed for more than one or two periods over my tenure at the school. One principal loved me because I was well-spoken, articulate, and because we shared common interests. Another principal disliked me because I sent several misbehaving students to the office, and she didn’t want to be bothered with handling discipline. Another principal thought I was doing a good job because the class was running smoothly with no behavior problems, but that was (in my opinion) mostly because I was teaching a slate of almost all honors students in an elective class.

    Schools aren’t a business and they don’t turn a profit (well, most schools don’t). Therefore, principals have little incentive to retain teachers simply because they teach their subject well. Principals have, instead, an incentive to keep teachers that they personally like and that do not “cause problems” for the principal (such as ticking off an influential parent).

    Regarding test data, I simply believe that there are too many variables in each class to reliably use test data to evaluate the quality of teachers. Would the data reflect the number of students with emotional or learning disabilities that are mainstreamed into a teacher’s class? Would it reflect whether the principal supported the teacher in removing disruptive students from the classroom? Would it reflect whether the teacher was responsible for preparing just one subject per year (e.g., U.S. History) or two, three or even four subjects at once? There are too many variables to use student year-end test scores to determine teacher quality.

  6. The misinterpretation of the research that tells us that the teacher is the most important SCHOOL variable is likely responsible for the misguided “reform” that we see at this time. It should be common sense that it takes a partnership between the home, the school and the community to provide the very best education for each child, but because many people make the same mistake as Mr. Hester, it is commonly believed that the school alone can do the job. If only!!!

    My first two years of teaching were in an affluent private school in Ohio. When most of my students scored above the 90th percentile on standardized tests, I assumed that I was a real natural. The third year I taught in a public school in the “inner-city” of Cleveland, where my students scored BELOW the tenth percentile (yes, below). Again, I thought it was me. It took about five years for me to understand that I was part of a team.

    Can an excellent teacher make a huge difference in a child’s life? Absolutely, but in most instances she needs the help of others to do so.

  7. Linda & E-Pluribus Unum: I also noticed the glaring misstatement in Hester’s piece (Teachers are the most important factor…). But I couldn’t tackle all of it so I focussed on the seniority issue.

    It’s upsetting that the phrase “most important in-school factor” has been converted to “most important factor” in many people’s minds – there’s a big difference between the two. Thanks to Linda and E-Pluribus for pointing it out.

  8. Attorney DC – All good points. Let me try to rspond.

    Your experience with principals shows that we have a lot of work to do. Schools are not for-profit, but we need to do a much better job of aligning incentives across a school. While I disagree with you that principals have little incentive to retain good teachers, I would agree that we need to do a lot more to ensure that principals are held accountable for the results of the schools they run. That way – they are shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t retain the best teachers.

    Your anecdotes are telling and demonstrate the work of bad management. We can do better than firing the youngest teachers. Lets work on a better evaluation system, get department heads, APs, and principals into classrooms so that we can develop teachers by showing them where they can improve.

    I disagree with you pretty significantly on test data. The metrics proposed are looking at growth, not absolute performance. That way – students who have underperformed (behavior issues, learning / emotional disabilities, etc.) are taken into account. Now I’ll grant that these are still not perfect, but it very much differentiates teachers based on how much learning is taking place in their classrooms. Over time (multiple years of data) these metrics become much better.

    Again, I’d advocate for combining these metrics. Principals won’t have full control, but they will get to weigh in. In addition, if we allow districts to start making more decisions based on student growth metrics – we will be able to hold principals more accountable and they will have to make more decisions to align with the best interests of students.


  9. Dean: I appreciate you taking the time to address my points. I do agree that it’s important (in theory) to retain the best teachers regardless of seniority. But I stick to my position that this is much easier said than done.

    You acknowledge that there is “bad management” in some schools. Although you said that the principal’s evaluation should be only one part of an overall evaluation, I’ve found that generally speaking, in the absence of a seniority system, schools rely on the principal to make firing decisions (such as in the RIF’s in the DC public schools last fall). I don’t think that the principals are bad managers, per se, so much as that their jobs just aren’t set up to be key evaluators of teaching practice. A typical principal has maybe 40 teachers + 20 staff members to oversee along w/ many other responsibilities. Especially in the low-performing schools, where there is high turnover of both teachers and administrators, many teachers only overlap with a given principal for one or two years. This doesn’t make it easy to set up systematic, long-term evaluations.

    I appreciate your argument that using data that measures student growth over the course of the school year is somewhat more fair than other approaches. However, student growth is impacted by many things, including how hard the students try, parental support, disruptive classmates, etc. And teachers are all not given equal tools in their classrooms. That is, one teacher may be given a higher number of students with known behavior problems. Those students will then impact the scores of the other students: If “Davey” acts out, then “Paul” and “Erica”‘s scores will fall. Is this the teacher’s fault? What if the principal likes Teacher A and doesn’t care much for Teacher B and so, year after year, assigns most of the “Davey’s” to Teacher B’s class. As a result, you’d expect the students in Teacher A’s class to make better average growth each year than students in Teacher B’s class, regardless of the teaching skills of Teacher A or Teacher B.

    I’m giving these examples to show that, in the real world of teaching (in my experience), students are not assigned randomly, administration does not support all teachers equally, and different teachers have different burdens (e.g., additional subjects to teach, more difficult students). The point is that it’s very hard to look at one school and confidently state that Teacher A is better than Teacher B because Teacher A’s students progressed 6% on a standardized test from September to May and Teacher B’s students progressed 4% without looking at all the variables. Which is why it’s so dangerous to evaluate teachers like this (not to mention it would encourage teaching to the test or downright cheating, I’d expect).

  10. Great posts from the varying positions on this matter. I’d like to shift the discussion to hear some practical suggestions about how to put together a more fair approach somewhere between the seniority option, the principal has total say option, and the test scores trump everything option.

    Let me put two out there:

    1) Students could be surveyed at the end of the course in an attempt to measure how effective they perceive each of their teachers to be, like an end of course eval students complete at the university level.
    At the secondary level, you then have 100+ data points about a teacher’s perceived effectiveness.

    2) Increased use of video in our classrooms- Imagine an independent board that reviews videos of a teacher teaching throughout the year. Video reviewers would use a rubric known to teachers and would evaluate their perceived effectiveness of a few lessons of a teacher.

    I can see how some might poke holes in each of the individual components here.

    But together, if students, parents, the principal, and an independent evaluation board suggest that a teacher lacking seniority is doing an amazing job, then the school would probably be better off keeping them than handing that teacher a pink slip.

    At the same time, if ALL groups conclude that there’s a problem with a teacher, then the school/district, etc. should be able to do something about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.