Saturday, April 24, 2010

In Which We Waste a Crisis
I don't think that teachers' unions are ruining America. But when you read stories like this, it's hard to summon up much enthusiasm for their value:

Peter Borock, 23, is in his second year teaching history at Health Opportunities High School in the South Bronx. It could be his last.

With New York City schools planning for up to 8,500 layoffs, new teachers like Mr. Borock, and half a dozen others at his school, could be some of the ones most likely to be let go. That has led the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, into a high-stakes battle with the teachers’ union to overturn seniority rules that have been in place for decades.

Facing the likelihood of the largest number of layoffs in more than a generation, Mr. Klein and his counterparts around the country say that the rules, which require that the most recently hired teachers be the first to lose their jobs, are an anachronism in the era of accountability that will upend their efforts of the last few years to recruit new teachers, improve teacher performance and reward those who do best.
Unions argue that administrators want to do away with seniority protections so they can get rid of older teachers, who are more expensive.

They say that without seniority safeguards, principals could act on personal grudges, and that while keeping the best teachers is a laudable goal, no one has figured out an accurate way to determine who those teachers are.

“There is no good way to lay people off,” said Randi Weingarten, the former leader of the city’s teachers’ union, who is now the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “But to be opportunistic and try to rush something through without knowing if there’s some degree of objectivity and a comprehensive and valid evaluation system is appalling.”

Full disclosure compels me to admit that I've never found Randi Weingarten to be much more than an apologist for mediocrity in education and an impediment to most of the more interesting and aggressive education reform efforts in NYC or anywhere else. But what she's saying here is especially repulsive, because it elides her years of staunch resistance to any evaluative steps that might rise to the level of "objective, comprehensive and valid." You can't use test scores; you can't use student or peer or parent evaluations; heaven forbid you use administrator assessments. Somehow, a malicious actor will always be able to use the standard to carry out a grudge against a poor defenseless teacher whose classroom outcomes just happen to stink.

The last-in, first-out policy is especially infuriating given the high rates of attrition among new teachers in the city anyway--based on a study done by the New York City Council a few years back, a quarter of them leave within two years, and half within five, both rates far in excess of national averages. It's probably not too much to say that it's more demanding and difficult to be an inexperienced educator in New York City than anywhere else in the U.S. It doesn't help that another advantage of seniority is much more freedom in choosing where to teach--meaning that the newbies routinely get the toughest assignments in the system, a great way to drive out all but the most dedicated.

Adding to the irrationality is the fact that, unless things have changed in the last few years since I looked closely at the demographics of the New York City teaching workforce (and given the attrition trends and seniority rules, I'm not sure how they could have), the bulk of our educators are within a relatively few years of retirement. Meaning that as cohorts leave the workforce, the city will have to scramble to replace them. I don't know if contractual or budgetary considerations render this impossible, but early buyouts of some of the older teachers seems to be a smarter way to absorb the cuts than indiscriminately cutting loose young teachers great and lousy.

The real point is that we need to find better ways of determining teacher quality--because the one thing we know in the befogged world of education reform is that high-quality teachers make an enormous, lasting difference. There's a lot of work going on right now to do just this--but it doesn't sound like clear answers will emerge soon enough to inform the city's teacher workforce reductions, even if the United Federation of Teachers accepted that the conclusions were valid and not the nefarious product of some teacher-hating education bureaucrat.


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