As readers here know, Sam Zurier, a member of the ESPEC Steering Committee (who drafted the anti-bumping legislation discussed in the ProJo story below) writes an education column for the East Side Monthly. Appropriately, this month’s column is on bumping:
Solving the Bumping Problem
By Sam Zurier
After taking over a community meeting for East Side elected officials last October, the subject of teacher “bumping” has generated much discussion at different levels. Cliff Wood, one of the forum participants, convened a meeting of the Providence City Council’s Education Committee to gather information on the subject. Recently, the East Side Public Education Coalition (ESPEC) accepted an invitation from Rhode Island House Majority Leader Gordon Fox to provide a draft of proposed legislation for him to review and submit to the General Assembly.
ESPEC’s draft bill, which was filed as Bill S-2620 by Senator Rhoda Perry, can be viewed online at http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/billtext08/senatetext08/s2620.pdf. Because ESPEC lacks professional expertise in this policy area, its proposal adopted language that appears in the current Massachusetts law. Massachusetts public schools have improved greatly since the enactment of the 1993 education reform law, which was enacted after a court ruled that the state’s education program failed to meet Constitutional requirements. While Massachusetts and Rhode Island offered comparable programs in 1993, over the last 15 years, the Bay State has improved at a much faster rate than the Ocean State.
While Massachusetts has not solved the bumping problem entirely, the 1993 reforms included several initiatives that reduce the problem significantly. The 1993 law instituted a systematic program of teacher evaluation, consisting of a set of baseline standards developed by the state, with the opportunity for local districts to supplement. The 1993 law instituted certain “site based management” reforms, under which principals are authorized to evaluate teachers and to remove them for failing to meet performance standards. Finally, the 1993 law removed the requirement of seniority-based terminations for layoffs. These three initiatives provide the basic structure of the ESPEC proposal.
Were the ESPEC proposal to become law in Rhode Island, teacher performance could become a new standard for comparing teachers when making personnel decisions. Teachers at Hope High School have accepted the concept of “peer based” evaluation, but Providence lacks any district-wide policies or standards to evaluate teachers. The same is true for the majority of other districts in the State. ESPEC has not researched how performance evaluations have fared in Massachusetts, although the Commonwealth’s overall increases in student achievement suggest a beneficial result.
In the meantime, the State’s current budgetary crisis, including the uncertainty of State education aid, has raised the “bumping” issue to a new level. In February, Providence sent layoff notices to more than 600 teachers, a disappointing but not unusual development. This year is different, however, because Providence has plenty of company in this unfortunate process, including such communities as Burrillville, East Greenwich, East Providence, Middletown and North Kingstown. As a result, bumping has become a statewide issue that affects both urban and suburban districts.
There may now be more support for reform among teachers. At the October forum, Leader Fox described the history of the “bumping” law, noting that it has been supported over the years by teachers who see seniority as a protection against arbitrary management decisions. Recently, however, teachers have begun to express their disapproval of the practice. In late February, Superintendent Evans convened the Teachers’ Council, a forum designed to provide him with feedback from the District’s teaching professionals. A chorus of teachers at the meeting rose up to protest the practice, not only because “bumping” can hurt their own careers, but also because the practice undermines the culture and morale among all of the teachers at a given school.
There are also signs of activity at the Rhode Island Department of Education. Commissioner Peter McWalters and the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education have announced a plan to develop, through regulations, a baseline standard for teacher performance. While we have not yet seen their working draft, the Commissioner announced that the teacher evaluation system may help to solve the “bumping” problem for new teacher vacancies as well as layoffs. It would be exciting if the Board of Regents and the General Assembly engaged in a competition to see who can be the first to introduce teacher evaluations to the State’s public schools.
As of early March, the ball is now in the court of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. Leader Fox is currently researching the bill and consulting with educational leaders and experts to determine whether the Massachusetts model is best, or whether some other approach would work better in Rhode Island.
The Massachusetts reforms set forth in the ESPEC proposal would not solve the entire “bumping” issue. More specifically, the ESPEC proposal does not provide a complete set of rules for layoffs after the current rule of seniority only is phased out. In Massachusetts, newly certified teachers have a preference over those without the highest level of certification, but there are no rules to govern choices between two equally certified teachers. One can imagine different scenarios that combine performance and seniority, such as one proposal that grades teachers into performance categories, and makes decisions first by category, and then by seniority.
This year, the “bumping” problem has gained attention through the concerns of parents throughout Rhode Island and teachers in Providence. There are new efforts to solve the problem at the Board of Regents and the General Assembly. With all of these forces at work together, there is reason for new hope that we can find a solution to the “bumping” crisis.