Below is Sam’s regular column on Education for July
The Teacher Quality Crisis
I have written before about the “bumping” problem (a policy that bases teacher layoffs on seniority alone) which every year costs Providence some of its best teachers to the detriment of our children, families and also other teachers who can be demoralized by the lost of talented colleagues. During this session of the General Assembly, our local delegation (Representative Fox and Senator Perry) introduced different bills to address the issue. Neighborhood activists from the East Side Public Education Coalition, along with representatives of the Providence School Board, the School Department, the Rhode Island Department of Education, the Providence Teachers’ Union and the National Education Association attended hearings to discuss the House and Senate “bumping bills.” I also have had the opportunity to speak with a number of the key people who appeared at these hearings on an informal basis.
I wish that this effort had produced a consensus among the various constituencies to solve the “bumping” problem, but neither bill would bring about an immediate and complete resolution. The hearings and discussions have, however, presented a number of perspectives that I hope will help to advance our understanding of this critical issue.
The obvious starting point is a law on the books that requires layoffs to be made in order of seniority. We originally thought it would be relatively easy to lobby the General Assembly to repeal that law. The General Assembly heard compelling testimony from a teacher who was “bumped”, as well as parents from Classical High School who had to suffer with the loss of a prize-winning biology teacher who was “bumped” in favor of a more senior but ineffective replacement. These parents testified about hiring the talented, laid-off teacher (at $50 per hour) to tutor their students in the Advanced Placement course’s basic requirements, as his replacement was not teaching them.
We discovered, however, that the goal of simply repealing the current law failed to generate a consensus for two reasons. First, children and parents might not see any immediate changes because existing collective bargaining agreements (which would apply in the absence of a state law mandate) likely would perpetuate the seniority system in a different form. Second, teachers and union leaders opposed a simple repeal because it might permit a return to an earlier era in which management made some personnel decisions on a completely arbitrary basis, a problem the led to the passage of the current seniority-based law in 1946.
We learned from these hearings that the best response to both objections to a simple repeal is to improve dramatically the School Department’s ability to evaluate teachers and take appropriate action when a teacher fails to meet appropriate standards. If a district has a strong teacher evaluation system, then evaluations can become part of a layoff decision. Furthermore, if teacher quality increases due to a strong evaluation and accountability system, there is less of a risk of personnel changes causing a dramatic impact in the quality of the education being provided in any particular classroom.
On the subject of evaluation, there is a consensus that the current system is not working. The current evaluation regime calls for newly hired teachers to be evaluated for three years before receiving tenure, and sporadically after that point. In practice, newly-hired teachers do not receive sufficient evaluation or support, and tenured teachers are not evaluated regularly or clearly. Both the teachers’ union and the district acknowledge that a new evaluation system has been operating on a trial basis in a few schools, and is under negotiation to be expanded. There is a disagreement, however, as to why the new system has not yet been agreed upon or implemented, a delay that only postpones any realistic effort to improve teacher quality.
Both the Perry and Fox “bumping bills” direct the Rhode Island Department of Education to develop standards to form the basis of required teacher evaluation systems in every district in the state. While it is comforting to hear that Providence’s collective bargainers believe themselves to be on the brink of a breakthrough, such a state mandate would not cause any harm and ultimately could provide a valuable push in the event that the promised negotiated solution fails to materialize.
With regard to the problem of substandard teachers in the system today, the district and the union have a difference of opinion. From the district’s perspective, the impediment is the onerous set of due process requirements associated with terminating an ineffective teacher. For example, the current procedures allow teachers to demand a hearing before the entire School Board (all nine members, not just a quorum). It can be very difficult to assemble all nine members for an extraordinary hearing that can take two hours, and teachers always have the opportunity to request a schedule change at the last instant. Also, the current system calls for personnel actions to be taken by the central office; in contrast, the Massachusetts education reform law of 1993 empowered principals to initiate teacher termination proceedings.
According to the union, the problem instead lies in the hands of ineffective principals, as some highly effective principals of the past have succeeded in removing numerous ineffective teachers through existing procedures while inspiring other teachers at the school to perform at a higher level in order to avoid termination.
I have not yet been able to assess the merits of this debate, but I intend to continue my own investigation and report as I learn more. Similarly, the East Side Public Education Coalition has worked hard to advance these issues in the General Assembly and through discussions with the parties. While ESPEC’s knowledge has increased, the problem remains as urgent and serious as it did before this year’s effort began.
It is important to keep the issue of teacher quality in perspective. By all accounts, the majority of teachers in the Providence public schools serve their students well, and nobody would claim that every teacher in our private and parochial schools is perfect. With that said, any parent whose child is subjected to poor teaching has a right to feel upset, and it is clear that the current program in Providence does not do enough to promote teacher quality. The problem becomes especially apparent when layoffs based on seniority alone produce a dramatic decline in teacher quality in a classroom, directly harming the futures of innocent children who supposedly are the highest priority of our school system.
The various parties who must take responsibility for this unfortunate state of affairs each have differing explanations for the source of this problem and the solutions that can address it. At the end of the day, parents and students are not able (and should not be expected) to adjudicate who is “right” or “wrong” about this question. Instead, we must demand that these parties work together to solve this longstanding problem as soon as possible.