Flawed teacher layoff system reduces education quality

By Caroline Cohn

Class of 2010

 

   As layoffs loom closer and administrators must decide who should stay and who must go, a major issue in the public school systems once again surfaces: administrators do not decide who is laid off. In fact, neither do department heads, colleagues, faculty members, parents, students, nor anyone else who is seemingly qualified to make these cuts.

  Instead, by law, tenure and experience become the deciding factor in determining layoffs, trumping quality, dedication, and competence as criteria. As the Massachusetts laws are written, teachers who are untenured (those who have not served in the school system for three years) must be laid off prior to any tenured teachers.  Furthermore, teachers must be laid off “in the inverse order of their initial employment,” as dictated by the Walpole Teacher’s Association’s union contract, which essentially decides exactly which employees will be laid off.

  The unfortunate consequence of these regulations is that the Walpole school system will be forced to eliminate several promising newer and less experienced teachers in favor of teachers with more experience who are not necessarily better for the job.

  In addition to simply losing some outstanding educators, union policy forces the school system to keep underperforming teachers. As long as a union teacher can last through his or her first three years of teaching without getting fired, they can not be dismissed except when budgetary circumstances require it. Thus, during more prosperous economic times, tenured teachers can accumulate years of experience that will later save them during layoff years, and these teachers become virtually impossible to remove, regardless of whether or not they perform.

    While not true for everyone, it is safe to say that some people lose motivation if there is no incentive to work hard and no consequence for working less hard. Unfortunately for students, these are the circumstances for teachers, who can easily lose motivation because they neither receive benefits for performing better and have no risk of losing their job since membership within the union greatly protects them from being fired. 

  Rather than resort to an expensive, time-consuming, and an often-losing battle at the courts with the union, administrators will often keep some questionable employees on the ranks. WHS is better than most at evaluating and enforcing teacher quality, as a program is in place even for tenured teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations to enter into an improvement program where their progress is closely monitored for two years. If the teacher fails to demonstrate improvement, they may be dismissed. Still, this process is imperfect, as it is lengthy and rarely results in dismissals. Administrators in charge of evaluations are also greatly overburdened with the number of evaluations expected of them, so the quality of teacher assessment also often suffers, and poor performance can be overlooked. 

  Other school systems have already experimented with giving monetary incentives to teachers, while others have opted for punitive measures. For example, the New York City public schools have recently implemented “teacher detentions” to remove some of their worst teachers from the classroom, including those suspected of being drunk while teaching, sleeping during class, or literally doing nothing at all.  In these detentions, teachers sleep or play board games in “Rubber Rooms” while they await trial between their school and their union representative. Though an extreme financial burden on the schools and taxpayers (teachers in “detention” are still kept on the payroll while others must be paid to teach in their stead), this detention system was seen as a better alternative to exposing students to the negative influences of these teachers.

  When schools have to resort to such measures simply to keep a drunkard out of the classroom, something is fundamentally amiss with the system. In most professions, employees are regularly assessed for their quality of work and can be let go for underperforming; why should the people responsible for educating our youth be held to a lower standard? 

  The burden often then falls on parents to ensure the proper education of their children. Though technically against the rules, it is no secret that parents often call the school, meet with guidance, or attempt to strategically rearrange or reform their child’s class schedule in order to avoid certain teachers.  When complaints are consistently made against the same teacher, it is unfair that students with less informed or more timid parents should have to suffer said teacher’s inadequacies, and it is wrong that nothing can be done to remove the teacher.

  This is not to suggest that teachers always lose motivation over the years—as certainly some of WHS’s most experienced teachers are also the most dedicated. Walpole boasts countless extraordinary educators, and an overwhelming percentage of teachers in the WTA recently voted in favor of several concessions involving generous personal sacrifices in terms of tuition reimbursement, salaries, and health insurance coverage. However, the unfortunate truth is that this exceptional quality is not always 100%, and when it isn’t the case, administrators should be more empowered to redress the situation by removing the teacher.

  Schools were not created to give teachers jobs but rather to give our youth an education; however, the way union contract is now functioning, the security of teachers is taking precedent over the best interests of the students.

2 Comments

  1. Angela Haberstroh

    There is another solution: You can change for whom you vote! This is hard to do in a state like Massachusetts but laws can be re-written even here.

  2. I cannot agree more with the issues raised in teacher layoffs by Caroline Cohn. The teacher union’s antiquated rules assure that some of our very best and brightest educators will be looking for work while some (certainly not all) average and sub-par teachers maintain thier place in our classrooms. This practice assures a regression to the mean for any and all up and coming school systems that worked hard to bring exceptional young teaching talent to a school system. Until the superintendent and the school committee decide that enough is enough, and make layoffs by merit as opposed to length of emploment, we will see our highly talented staff begin to be watered down by the exodus of our fine young teachers. We only have to look to our nation’s capital in Washington, DC top see a cutting edge example of a superindent willing to buck the union and decide layoffs based on merit. The level of education has skyrocketed since she took over. It’s past time that we do the same in Walpole. Ms. Cohn is to be commended for her keen insight into a problem that plagues our nations schools and could be easily remedied by someone with a bit of vision to keep our best educators in place and reward them for thier initiative and skills sets as opposed to simply how many years they have been in the classroom. There are great new teachers and great veteran teachers, but simply time spent in a classroom is not what what makes them great.

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