Learning from the “Experts”

, Spencer Irvine, Leave a comment

Teach Plus, a leadership initiative for full-time teachers, published a book with the Harvard Education Press entitled Learning from the Experts: Teacher Leaders on Solving America’s Education Challenges. The book is composed of mini-articles written by “teacher leaders,” or full-time teachers who have additional coordination and leadership responsibilities outside the classroom. Their concerns also had a response, or a counter-argument, by other “teacher leaders,” teacher union leaders or Teach Plus leaders.

teach plus logoYet, none of the teachers who wrote their take on education policy and reform could ever agree on a single issue, such as teacher layoffs, seniority and standardized testing.

For example, the District of Columbia started a program called IMPACT, which was supposed to raise baseline education standards for one of the worst public education systems in the country. One teacher, a former professional basketball player, praised the system and how it made him a better teacher. But, a former D.C. teacher who left the system for a charter school, criticized it as being opaque and outdated. She felt she should be receiving feedback and training to improve year-by-year, but after being rated as a highly-effective teacher, she was cut off from constructive feedback and teacher training because IMPACT assumed that once someone was an effective teacher, they would stay that way. She said, “Our school leaders just aren’t giving us reasons to stay.” She also pointed out that “across the board, teacher turnover has a negative impact on school cultures and communities. Research shows that high rates of teacher turnover negatively affect school morale and diminish student achievement, even for students whose teachers stay put.”

Also, a teacher from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) said that her students loved the Common Core tests and saw them as a challenge to focus on each and every year. However, the Common Core tests mimicked previous federal and state tests, which were baseline standardized tests. Why should teachers spend significant time to prepare to pass baseline tests? Shouldn’t the teachers be effective enough to balance standardized test preparation with going beyond these baseline standards? A baseline standard is not the peak of student achievement, but it seems that it has become such under Common Core.

One teacher, who objected to testing, admitted that these “reigns of testing terror can push teachers and administrators to lie, cheat, and steal in order to preserve their own livelihoods.” This situation occurred in Atlanta public schools, where teachers and administrators helped their students cheat on state tests so they could pass.

Several teachers praised their unions for protecting their benefits and salaries, ranging from the LAUSD to the Chicago public schools. At first, one teacher said she did not like unions until she got married and had children, where “some semblance of job security helped me to sleep at night.” But, that was rebutted by another Chicago-area teacher who blasted the unions because early in her career, “I was aware of the union only because it took dues out of my paycheck,” and recalled how the unions prioritized “protecting my older colleagues,” even when they were ineffective teachers.

Also, she said that the Chicago public school system is “not serving its students as well as they need to. Only 8 percent of African American students who attend CPS, for example, graduate from college within six years. We have to do better than this, and my union’s positions on tenure, compensation, and career ladders restrain the education system in Chicago from constantly improving the quality of education for its students.” Instead, “the union has put its workers’ rights over students’ rights. Every time my union defends an ineffective teacher, argues that more experience automatically means more effectiveness, or claims that creating a career ladder for teachers will create a rift among union members, I inch a step away from aligning with the union.” Both the union and younger, new teachers need to compromise on seniority and hiring practices, “because this is the right thing to do for both teachers and students.”

Laying off new and effective teachers has become a common approach of school districts when budget cuts come around. This approach, called “last in, first out” or LIFO, occurs, because “schools operate as seniority-driven cultures” in which the systems “retain many less-effective teachers and lay off more-effective ones.” As a result of budget cuts and seniority practices, “the district is forced to give pink slips to more staff than is truly necessary.” These “staffing decisions create a disastrous cycle for urban students” as less-experienced and ineffective teachers continue to staff the urban schools while more-experienced, more effective and senior teachers choose not to teach in urban schools. The same teacher said, “Urban students suffer when we allow the date of hire to be the sole factor in staffing decisions.”

One example was a “Mr. Miller,” a veteran teacher who had his students sit in silence all day while he read his newspaper. Teachers like “Mr. Miller” are retained and are paid, in Miller’s instance, $30,000 more than a beginning teacher. Why do teachers like “Mr. Miller” stay on at schools? This teacher said, “No one wanted him, but no one was willing to do the substantial work necessary to terminate his employment.”

These LIFO policies have directly affected the LAUSD, which “cost the district enormous numbers of young, talented and potentially talented teachers, particularly over the last four years. This is unacceptable in the face of persistent low achievement. In LAUSD, only roughly three in five students graduate from high school in four years.” One teacher went on to say, “Among those graduates, a mere 15 percent are eligible for admission to the state’s public university system, due to their poor grades and the lack of rigor in their high school coursework.” The teacher said, “If our system is going to be truly committed to student outcomes, the students’ need for excellent teachers must trump teachers’ fear of arbitrary firing.”

The current seniority system is broken and long overdue for reform, especially when union contracts restrict teacher hiring and firings. Schools cannot “hire at will when there is an opening, but instead must defer to the seniority list.” After the list is consulted, teachers can accept or refuse assignments, and if they refuse, “the position goes unfilled until the bureaucratic backlog produces a credentialed teacher who is willing to take the opening. This process can sometimes take years.”

The unions were not spared criticism when she went on to say, “The bottom line: this process means that students in the highest-need schools – those children who can least afford to lose great teachers – are disadvantaged the most by LIFO.” And, “with such abysmal graduation rates, how can the district and state justify performance-blind layoff policies? [Urban students] should be the last to lose their teachers to budget cuts, particularly when the teachers are truly committed and produce results. A system that fails to account for teacher effectiveness when choosing who should be in the classroom is bound to produce mediocre results at best.”

“In LAUSD’s case, the results are not even mediocre; they are disturbingly inadequate. There is no other profession in this country that fails to take quality and results into account in hiring and firing decisions. It is time for the teaching profession to catch up.”

After this teacher was laid off from LAUSD as a part of the LIFO policy, she felt much better and more secure at a charter school because she proved she was an effective teacher.


Spencer Irvine is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.
If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org.


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