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Now a bigger teacher issue: layoffs that consider quality of teaching

You know all the sturm und drang of recent weeks over the arrival of alternative teacher certification in Minnesota?

You know all the sturm und drang of recent weeks over the arrival of alternative teacher certification in Minnesota? I know it’s seemed red-hot, but compared to some of the issues yet to make their way out of Capitol back rooms it looks more like a ninth-grade production of “West Side Story.”

No, not talking about bills freezing teacher pay or curbing collective bargaining. Those we can likely place in the category of ideological posturing by the Sharks that’s guaranteed to be vetoed by the ranking Jet.

I’m talking about the potential end of “last in, first out,” the rule that says teachers must be laid off in order of seniority. Like alternative licensure, it’s another proposed reform that’s likely to pit a coalition of conservatives and pro-education-reform liberals against Education Minnesota and its stalwart DFL allies.

As of yesterday, no bill to end “quality-blind layoffs” had been introduced, but education policy circles were thick with buzzing rumors about when, how and by whom. Some of the educated lurkers I managed to reach said they’d heard stand-alone legislation was being drafted; others anticipate amendments to the teacher tenure reform act and to bills affecting public employee pensions.

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About to jump off funding cliff
In the absence of hard intelligence about a bill or bills, let me offer background. Between the $5 billion state budget deficit and the end of federal education stimulus money, Minnesota school districts are about to hurtle over an imaginary precipice administrators and politicians alike have been describing as a funding cliff.

Unless Gov. Mark Dayton gets his tax increase, mass teacher layoffs are all but guaranteed. Yes mass: 500 to 700 in the state’s largest district, Anoka-Hennepin, alone over the next three years.

Right now, Minnesota is one of 14 states nationwide with laws on the books stating that teacher layoffs must be carried out according to seniority lists. No other factors may be considered. Great teachers may get the ax, while duds get sinecure.

School administrators have considered this to be problematic for years. It hampers districts’ ability to retain minority teachers (yes, there are exceptions — hello, St Paul!) and has had a disproportionate affect on students in struggling schools, which the most experienced teachers have historically been able to bid out of.

Under old rules, a lot to lose
But that was pre-funding cliff. According to a February report [PDF] by The New Teacher Project, Minnesota, with its high deficit and relatively low number of teachers, is one of the states with the most to lose under the old rules.

“Quality-blind layoff policies threaten to make this year’s layoffs catastrophic,” the report asserts. “More job losses will be necessary to meet budget reduction goals, because the least senior teachers are also the lowest-paid. And, as is all too common, the most disadvantaged students will be hit hardest, because they tend to have the newest teachers. These outcomes are intolerable.”

Yes, I realize The New Teacher Project is one of those alternative-certification programs some still deem to be a little ideologically suspect. But it’s not as if the layoffs we’re talking about are going to suddenly create openings for hundreds of nontraditional teachers to rush in and replace their union brethren.

Districts must pay alternative license-holders, and there simply aren’t enough of them to compensate for laid-off union members. No, we’re talking about wedging more kids into fewer classrooms, period.

There’s some great data in the report. Consider, for instance, that three-fourths of teachers in large, urban districts think factors other than seniority should be used in layoff decision-making. I’d wager this is because the vast majority of educators are there because they genuinely care about kids, not because of the cushy pay and benefits Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and others would have us believe they enjoy.

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One cost of an ineffective teacher
“Students taught by an ineffective teacher make 2.5-3.5 fewer months’ worth of academic progress in a year than they would with an average teacher,” the report argues. “This amounts to ending the school year in March — a major loss, especially for students who already lag months or years behind their peers.”

There will be structural repercussions, too. “Layoffs that consider performance would dismiss the most ineffective teachers,” TNTP posits. “So, next year, students in classrooms affected by layoffs would have a better chance of being assigned an effective teacher — and a better chance of learning more.”

It’s not just those renegade alternate license-holders doing the arguing, either. A bill to allow districts the leeway to use multiple factors when deciding whom to layoff is being considered in New York. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he opposes layoffs based on seniority alone.

Closer to home, Lynnell Mickelson, a Minneapolis Public Schools parent and co-founder of Put Kids First Minneapolis, a “pro-labor” grassroots effort to encourage the district and its teachers union to agree to a number of reforms, opposes quality-blind layoffs.

“If you believe that’s fair, you have to believe all teachers are the same,” she said. “And we all know that’s simply not true.”

Reform without axing collective bargaining
(There’s some great information on the group’s website on how — and why — to achieve reform without clobbering collective bargaining.)

Assuming the bill or bills Mickelson and others say they hear is in the offing actually materializes, the politics may be the least of it. Minnesota also lacks a comprehensive mechanism for evaluating teachers. Indeed, few are assessed on any kind of regular basis. Some go decades between any performance review at all.

Education Minnesota and many of its affiliates are in favor of changing this, which is good, because assessing teachers is even trickier than measuring the performance of their pupils. There are scarcely enough weeks left in the current legislative session to hammer through a tough tenure reform, much less create the thoughtful underpinnings it would need to be meaningful.