A Fiscal Cliff May Be Looming For Schools. Is It Time To Change How Staff Layoffs Are Managed?

At Education Next, Michael Petrilli (Fordham Institute) argues that economic hard times are looming for school districts in the country, and it’s time to reconsider how teachers are laid off.

Federal COVID relief funds will be running out in 2024. A continuing baby bust will hit school enrollment numbers. There might be a recession coming (or not). All of these shifts will create pressure for school districts to lay off staff.

This, says Petrilli, “could yield some positive effects if schools are willing to differentiate between effective and ineffective teachers and other staff.”

Making employment decisions based on “effectiveness” has long been a dream of the education reform movement. Way back in 2009, TNTP released its argument entitled “The Widget Effect” which attempted to make a case of “act on differences in teach effectiveness,” though many folks remained unconvinced. Many states saw initiatives to eliminate teacher job protections, and in California, the unsuccessful Vergara lawsuit attempted to get the courts to throw out such protections.

We’ve seen fewer such initiatives lately, at least in part because most districts are having enough trouble filling the openings they have without creating more. And Petrilli is clear that he is not arguing against the practice of most states that follow “first in, last out” (FILO) that bases layoffs on seniority. He would simply like to more carefully screen new teachers so that the less effective ones can be sent packing before they achieve job protections, usually around three years into the profession.

This is arguably counter-productive. Depending on whose figures you use, somewhere between 20% and 40% of new teachers leave within the first five years of teaching. This suggests that the weaker candidates are winnowing themselves and also that some good teachers are being lost for lack of sufficient support at the beginning of their careers.

The main problem with sorting teachers by “effectiveness” is the same as always—there is no reliable or valid method for assessing teacher effectiveness.

For the last couple of decades teacher “effectiveness” has been measured primarily through student test scores. Value Added Measures were tried; in these, student test scores were run through some maths to result in scores that allegedly told how much “value” a teacher had added to students (in some case, that included students that the teacher had never taught). Debunked, dismissed even in reform-friendly states, and even thrown out by courts, test-centered assessment of teachers has never won enthusiastic adoption in schools.

Most crucially, test-centered teacher assessment was tried for at least a full decade, and it did not produce any of the promised results.

Teacher effectiveness is not well-measured by high-stakes testing no matter how many cool equations one runs the numbers through.

The desire to quantify teacher effectiveness is understandable. The illusion that it can be done is fed by the extremes; everyone is sure that they know really terrible and really great teachers when they see them. But the teachers in between (which is most of them) are not so easy to sort out.

Everyone is using a different yardstick. What makes a teacher effective? Are the students prepared for a future job? Are the students overcoming their own personal obstacles? Are the students happy, safe, and enjoying positive relationships? Is the classroom fostering curiosity? Is the teacher inspiring in some way?

And teaching is personal, a matter of relationships, as well as the intersection of the teacher’s strengths and weaknesses with the student’s strengths and weaknesses. You may be absolutely certain that you can name the best and the worst teacher where you went to school; I am equally certain that we could find another former student who not only disagrees, but reaches the opposite conclusion.

Can teachers be assessed? Yes, but it requires multiple measures as well as complex narrative and portfolio measures that resist being reduced to a score. It would take time, which means it would take money, which is the problem we started with.

In the end, teacher effectiveness is subjective, involving many factors that are either impossible to measure or which take years and years to manifest. Trying to come up with a concrete measure that determines which first year teachers to fire is like trying to come up with an index to determine which sets of newlyweds should be divorced. It seems like a good idea, especially in times of dwindling resources. But the solutions are hugely complex and complicated and not at all useful for those who want a simple actionable number to help them balance a budget.


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