Attacks on teacher seniority off-target

Experience does matter. Professionals are needed who can consistently provide quality education to a wide-range of ever-changing students. See what accomplished teacher evaluation systems should encompass for teachers and administrators.

Encouraging news from Chicago where students are fighting the removal of their teachers.

All over the country, schools are being closed / teachers are being mass fired or laid off under the guise of either ed reform or necessary budget cuts; urged on by federal competitive grants that give brownie points for such actions as proof of their seriousness to break with the status quo. Adding to the irony of these heart-wrenching events is the sobering fact that most of these teachers probably do not deserve to be fired or replaced. In some places, administrators decide which teachers go and which are allowed to remain or return based solely on seniority (commonly called last-in/first-out LIFO policies) as in recent highly publicized incidents in Nevada, Iowa, and Providence.

This scenario is disturbingly reminiscent of the post-Brown vs. Board of Education closings of Black schools and mass firings and demotions of Black teachers under the guise of ending desegregation [I’ll be publishing more on this point in a book chapter coming next month].

Opposing LIFO sounds impressively forward-thinking on the surface; but in the reality of actual schools, districts, students and teachers’ lives, it begs a huge question. We would not be relying on seniority if we had functioning, effective teacher evaluation systems. Giving building or district administrators unrestrained hiring and layoff powers in the absence of such systems does not correct the problem. The main reason seniority or due process policies appear to protect poor teachers is the lousy or incompetent evaluations which fail to reveal not only which teachers are weak, but why; or for that matter, how every teacher is truly performing and how each of them could be better. In fact, it has become embarrassingly obvious that one of the main reasons our educational system is at a disadvantage compared to those in some other countries is how we so unevenly evaluate and support our teachers.

If the evaluations were effective, those teachers with the greatest longevity would be the most highly effective ones. In a professional practice, such as teaching, experience does matter. Being good at something once is commendable, but we need professionals who can consistently provide quality education to a wide-range of ever-changing students. We know from historical examples and from the research that it is possible for a teacher to do a stellar job one year, in one school or setting; but not be able to repeat that success the next year with a different group of students due to a variety of factors. However, even in some of the most dysfunctional schools, we have teachers who consistently bring out the best in their students, or could with administrative and collegial support.

Teaching and learning are social, contextual, and fluid. Highly accomplished teachers:

  • Are committed to students and their learning.
  • Know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students
  • Are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning–regularly and through multiple methods.
  • Think systematically about their practice and learn from experience
  • Are members of learning communities–working with other professionals, parents, and community resources.

You may recognize this list as the Five Core Propositions of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. Those basic beliefs are why more and more teachers are pursuing National Board Certification, often at their own expense. Teachers who earn National Board Certification have demonstrated these abilities in their own classrooms with real students. The rigorous, valid certification process also helps teachers identify, some for the first time since student teaching, where their practice could be improved. Time and again, National Board candidates–those who achieve certification and the many who don’t, at least not on the first attempt–testify to the value of the process itself on strengthening their teaching practice. This is exactly what an effective evaluation system for teachers should do. Unlike standardized test results for students that give limited information about barely 30% of the current teaching force, valid and reliable NBPTS standards exist for almost every educator in every subject area and grade level. The NBPTS process is designed to measure teacher performance and effectiveness without having to go through convoluted and controversial statistical contortions such as the value-added measures (VAM) that must be applied to students’ standardized test data. Where student test data is available, it may be included in a teachers’ National Board portfolio (with important narrative interpretation from the teacher) as one piece of evidence, but we know that piece by itself is insufficient proof of teacher effectiveness.

I’ve written before on what really good teacher evaluation should include, so I won’t repeat those criteria here.

Apparently, it can’t be said enough: Stop wasting precious time, energy, and most important—people’s lives and livelihoods on the side issues, and focus first on the pivotal one—developing and implementing high quality educator evaluation systems for teachers and administrators.

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