A bill in Olympia, HB 1609, would end the practice of automatically firing the newest and youngest teachers first when Washington school districts implement layoffs. Under the bill, school administrators would be required to consider teacher performance, not just seniority, before letting a teacher go. The introductory language of the bill lays out its intent: “There is an urgent need to conduct layoffs in a way that retains the most effective teachers.”
Education research consistently shows that placing an effective teacher in the classroom is more important than any other single factor, including smaller class size, in helping children learn. A good teacher, as opposed to a weak one, can make as much as a full year’s difference in the learning growth of students. Students taught by a high-quality teacher three years in a row score 50 percentile points higher on standardized tests than students of ineffective teachers.
I’ve seen this at work at our own public school. My wife and I have worked with some great teachers, whose skill at enlightening young minds is very impressive – it’s like watching an artist at work. And our kids have had teachers who, to be honest, should be invited to seek career opportunities in another profession. These teachers seem to be marking time, enjoying job security and regular raises, while patiently awaiting a comfortable pension at retirement.
Public school parents constantly compare notes, and a quiet word-of-mouth network soon telegraphs which teachers to seek and which to avoid. The problem is parents have little control over where their children are assigned. If a child draws a bad teacher, parents can only try to make time for more schooling at home, and hope for a better instructor next year.
School administrators are barred from considering teaching quality when deciding layoffs, and union executives insist that officials fire the youngest teachers first. Collective bargaining agreements expressly prohibit a teacher’s classroom performance from being considered.
For example, the Seattle collective bargaining agreement says: “The performance ratings of employees shall not be a factor in determining the order of layoff under this Section.” Bellevue’s union contract, on page 70, requires that, “Those with the lowest seniority will be first selected [for termination].” Wenatchee’s union agreement says, “Layoffs shall be by seniority,” and when teachers are let go “the employee with the greatest seniority in the district shall be retained.”
Spokane’s union contract requires a little detective work. Page 59 says, “In the event...there is a necessity to reduce the number of certificated [union] employees” such reduction shall be in pursuant to Article 21. Turning to Article 21 the reader finds; “Each school year the District will compile...a certificated employee list...listing each employee from greatest to least seniority.” In other words, Spokane teachers are laid off based on seniority, not on whether they are good at educating children.
This is all the more disappointing because a special provision of state law lets private schools hire and fire any qualified professional as a teacher, free of union restrictions. Private school principals quickly hear about underperformers. They can either keep the teacher and lose the parents, or take action to improve the faculty. They usually side with parents, and as a result achieve higher teacher quality.
As a parent I am disappointed, but as a research analyst I am not surprised, when union executives oppose bills like HB 1609. On a range of education improvements, the union constitutes the primary obstacle to school reform in Washington. Union executives apparently oppose change because it would reduce their ability to shield older members from bad performance reviews.
As a result, motivated young teachers are forced out of the profession to protect the jobs of their senior colleagues. This policy drives away new talent and denies school children access to the best teachers.
So far the union has prevailed. HB 1609 remains locked in the firm embrace of the House Education Committee, whose head, Rep. Sharon Santos (D-Seattle), declines to allow a vote on the bill. A broad coalition of bill supporters, like Stand for Children, Partnership for Learning and the League of Education Voters, still hope for a turn-around. That is because they have come to realize what parents have long known – retaining teachers based on merit, not their accumulation of birthdays, serves the public interest and expands learning opportunities for all children.
Paul Guppy is Vice President for Research at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington state. For more information visit washingtonpolicy.org