“Educators for Excellence” My Sweet Aunt Fanny

Educators 4 Excellence and the Fight Against “Last In, First Out” in New York

Educators 4 Excellence”  is a group of (presumably) younger teachers in New York who are lobbying against the practice of laying off teachers in the order of experience come layoff time.

This short-sighted and ill-advised group is playing on public concerns about the economy and about unions to try to dismantle a vital element of the educational system. Using the rhetoric of fair play and meritocracy, Educators 4 Excellence seek a world in which teachers are let go not based on experience but based on some more subjective evaluation of teacher quality.

On the one hand, it’s hard to blame them. Twelve years ago I was a 22 year old teacher, brand new to the job market and in constant danger of being let go for cause. It’s not a pleasant feeling. And that was in the middle of the Clinton boom years. Now we’re enduring the tail end of the Bush economy and the likelihood of a first-, second- or third-year teacher being laid off is much greater. I can understand why, backs to the wall, these young turks would forward the argument that sacking a group of their collective brilliance and quick-wittedness is both unwise and unfair.

But their position is blatant dumb-assery, and it can’t be let stand. Elimination of seniority-based protection for teachers would be catastrophic.

I’ll leave aside for the moment the overwhelming flaws with the “merit-based” systems that would likely replace seniority.

The main reason why we need seniority-based protection in the system is that the best educators are envelope-pushers and risk-takers. Tenure and seniority provide the experienced educator with procedural safeguards in case some aspect of their instruction raises the ire of a conservative bureaucrat in the front office. Teachers are rarely independently wealthy; most of us depend on our jobs for survival – particularly in tough economic times. Tenure gives the experienced teacher the protection necessary to stand his or her ground when challenged by the administration.

This is not to say that administrators can’t fire teachers. It just means that administrators have a serious burden of proof to fulfill before they can axe an experienced educator. In most systems, these protections mean that multiple administrators have to do multiple classroom observations, identify specific flaws in instruction, formulate an improvement plan and follow through. These “hoops” are not impossible to fulfill in the case that the teacher really is doing a bad job, but they are quite difficult to fulfill if the teacher is doing a great job but the administrator has a bug up their ass regarding some element of the teacher’s instruction.

When I was in my last year of probationary teaching – my third year – in my first teaching position, my final pre-tenure review was done by a new AP. He observed my class as I was teaching Romeo and Juliet to a group of “regular” students. In the inner-city school where I taught at the time, “regular” students were simply non-sped kids who had not opted into either of the two advanced-level English classes (“accelerated” and “pre-AP”). So this was a pretty heterogeneous group of kids on the lower end of reading ability, with the average reading level at about the fifth or sixth grade. My strategy for teaching R&J was to have the kids read along in the text book while I played full scenes from Kenneth Branagh’s BBC radio version of the play. Then I would have the kids go back and read selected scenes over again aloud, as a class. We’d watch some scenes in either the Zeffirelli or (God help me) the Luhrmann version of the film. Some scenes they’d act out. It was a great schtick; the kids loved it. But the cornerstone of the strategy was listening to the text come alive in the Branagh radio version.

Anyhow, the AP didn’t like that technique. He thought that having the kids listen to the audio of the play disabled them because they weren’t forced to do all the reading themselves. I thought it was an effective form of modeling and I was right, but the AP in question was an ass hat and he decided that I shouldn’t get tenure. He told me in the post-observation interview that he was going to recommend that I be given an additional year of probation and then, maybe, I could get tenure and keep my job.

Well, ten minutes later I was sitting in the principal’s office with the AP and my union rep and the principal was calmly explaining to the AP that he couldn’t do that. If the administration agreed that there was some flaw with my teaching they could conduct additional classroom visits and initiate an improvement plan, but they couldn’t, based on one classroom visit, deny my tenure. After I explained the reasoning behind my approach to R&J, the principal declined to schedule additional remedial visits and I was tenured.

The moral of the story is that teachers need protections against bureaucrats. Eliminating “Last In, First Out” – or, more generally, eliminating the protections of tenure – would empower administrators to fire more experienced teachers not because of any objective problem with their teaching, but rather because of subjective comparisons to younger teachers.

The individual educator – including these young’uns from New York – would no longer have the procedural guarantees that give them the power to stand up to administrators who disagree with them. That would eliminate risk-taking and empower administrative politicking. Teachers would no longer be able to try new, interesting, creative or – especially – controversial tactics. Any teacher unfortunate enough to have a raving control-freak for a principal (raise your hands!) would be forced to kowtow to every ridiculous whim for fear of losing their gig due to the administrator’s poor evaluation.

This is particularly dangerous at layoff time because more experienced teachers make more money. “Educators 4 Excellence” imagine a world where teachers are evaluated based on some magically objective system of observation and “value added performance evaluations.” But when the budget needs to be cut, the biggest gains are obtained from axing the most experienced teachers. Those teachers will then have a great deal of trouble finding new jobs in a work environment where their experience would demand a relatively high salary.

In the world envisioned by “Educators 4 Excellence,” no one in their right mind would ever become a teacher because, at the start of their career, they would know (assuming they were capable of thinking that far ahead), that (A) the more experienced they became, the more incentive there would be to fire them; and (B) thanks to Educators 4 Excellence, there would no longer be any procedural protections in place come layoff time. So anyone entering the teaching field would be setting themselves up for a sudden mid-life job loss and insertion into an environment where they would have zero chance of finding a new job. Since Educators 4 Excellence is advocating this ridiculous position, I can only conclude that they are not in their right minds.

“Educators 4 Excellence” will no doubt respond that truly excellent teachers wouldn’t have to fear layoffs, because they would meet the standards of the educator evaluation and not be fired. This is bullshit. Since schools don’t generate profits, there’s no pressure of incentive to retain the most effective workers. In the case of layoffs, the economic incentive is perverse in its structure – it will always be to fire the most experienced workers. And as long as the administrator who is in charge of the bottom line is also in charge of the “evaluation,” older teachers will be screwed.

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